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Rugby World Cup: Ireland mean business on and off the pitch

By Tony Ward

Published 22/09/2015

Conor Murray
Conor Murray

Joe Schmidt and his match-day squad were caught between a rock and a hard place going into Saturday's clash against Canada. And, to their credit, they have extricated themselves from both obstacles in the best way possible. As Irish World Cup openers go, this was as good as it gets.

We have had reasonable starts before against inferior opposition. I'm thinking Zimbabwe followed by Japan in 1991 or Romania followed by Namibia in 2003. In both of those tournaments we went on to top the Pool, as indeed we did four years ago in New Zealand despite a much slower start against the USA.

They say a good start is half the battle and certainly in terms of whatever wish-list the head coach would have had going into Saturday's test there cannot be too much on that 'to do' list left unticked.

We rode the early storm when Canada hit the ground running. Nervousness after six weeks in a preparatory bubble can be a great leveller and for a short phase it was.

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But this is a different Ireland to previous World Cups. We wondered if they had held anything back and the answer was yes. What we saw was an edge and an intensity to our attacking play not witnessed in the warm-up games.

Everything about Saturday was good. And if the two previous defeats to Wales and England had dampened expectations ever so slightly then that bar has been raised again. The truth lies somewhere in between but I noticed one massive extra and that was fan power.

It might be England's World Cup but outside of the host nation, I doubt there will be any colour more prominent in the games to come than Emerald green.

Cardiff and just about every other point in Wales was awash with green. And it is a different type of support to Five or Six Nations tournaments in time past.

Fans are travelling from everywhere. There is a real family feel to it with a younger generation getting hooked. There must have been upwards of 50,000 clad in green in the Millennium.

It is only one game and one early game at that against inferior opposition but it felt good to be part of Joe's army in Cardiff for this impressive run-out.

But back to the game and the engine room of what could prove our most productive challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup to date.

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The performance wasn't perfect but there was enough evidence to suggest that it is going to take one very good team playing at the top of their game to knock us out.

In specific terms, the set-piece was better than efficient, thereby putting the platform in place early for Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton to do what they do best. Either one could have been named man of the match amid a whole host of other contenders.

When Murray and Sexton are in sync, on song and given the ammo then only New Zealand's Aaron Smith and Dan Carter can rival them for the best game-running combination in global rugby.

Cian Healy may have only been on for the final quarter but that too is a huge plus. Iain Henderson proved again that he is the lock to face the French alongside O'Connell irrespective of what transpires between now and the return to Cardiff, while Peter O'Mahony was immense in the lineout but also as a robust ball-carrying flanker.

At full-back, Rob Kearney was again class personified and while the three-quarter line individually and collectively hit their straps, it is here I believe the head coach has a real dilemma.

Whereas in the Six Nations the hastily-created Robbie Henshaw/Jared Payne combination filled that massive void left by Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, Schmidt knows there is more in the creative tank if he can get the midfield pairing right.

He may well work his way back to Payne (who was again outstanding save for the giveaway try) and Henshaw but there is room for a greater attacking spark to be trialled through Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls both on the training paddock and the Romanian and Italian matches to come before the French game in the Pool decider.

I am with Schmidt all the way in his retro take on centres. A centre is a centre whether asked to play wearing 12 or 13 - full stop.

Fitzgerald was very good on Saturday but he can be a whole lot better again - and the head coach is very aware of that.

Beyond that, the bench showed once again that it is up there with the best - namely the All Blacks and England - in terms of true game-changing potential.

Make no mistake, we're up and running.

Belfast Telegraph

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