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Fringe stars must seize their opportunity to dazzle

By Tony Ward

It's hard to believe, but it's finally here. Much like Gaelic Games in both codes so far this summer, it may not be the full monty but at least we have lift-off.

In a sense, the next six weeks leading up to the World Cup opener against the Canadians on September 19 represents Ireland's provincial championship.

That said, try telling that to the players who have been in camp since June 28 at Carton House and various venues around the island.

The players are in peak condition physically and mentally for the four warm-up games.

They are champing at the bit for action but badly in need of match time. It is one thing training for training's sake day on day, quite another when there is a definite target at the end of the week.

So there has been a much sharper edge to everything in the camp this week. Today's game against Wales may seem like a relatively meaningless friendly, but for many players, it could represent their World Cup final.

If the fringe men deliver before a sell-out 74,000 crowd in the Millennium (an astonishing attendance for a warm-up game), the most amazing journey of their careers could be under way.

But choke and it's curtains. Listening to the players before Thursday's team announcement, the message we have come to associate with the Schmidt era was again clear: no smoke from Pope Joe.

The head coach is an employer's dream, and the IRFU are well aware of that fact. His communicative skills are brilliant, but behind that angelic smile and friendly disposition at press conferences is a ruthless desire to succeed.

The fact he can bring close to three full teams to training on a daily basis and have each player believing they are in with a shout of making the final 31-man cut for the World Cup is an achievement in itself.

Equally, it takes some doing to have the established stars on their toes ahead of a curtain-raiser that was always set to be a trial.

Fergus McFadden probably summed it up best in relation to selection for today's game when saying "I feel lucky to be even getting this chance".

Therein lies the clearest hint as to where this back-to-back Six Nations winning squad is at in terms of mindset.

The immediate goal is to get over the first hurdle and see where that leads in terms of selection for the Scots next up.

I suspect Schmidt the man would like to blood close to an entirely different starting XV, but that is not how Schmidt the coach operates.

So, just like the players set to run on in Cardiff, let us concentrate on matters in hand and what might lie ahead this afternoon.

Schmidt and Warren Gatland spoke in the build-up and both match-day squads reflect the thrust of that conversation. There is a mix on both sides of players returning from injury, young guns hinting at greater things ahead and the experienced they dare not do without.

Does it matter who wins? Probably not, yet a sell-out crowd at the most atmospheric stadium in the world will see that thought banished come the first blast of Glen Jackson's whistle.

Of course individual and unit performances are paramount but a win either way would boost morale and provide an early injection of confidence to the winning camp.

From an Irish perspective, I'm looking forward to seeing Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls, Paddy Jackson, Donnacha Ryan, Iain Henderson (pictured), Jordi Murphy and Tommy O'Donnell put their hands up.

Off the bench Dave Kilcoyne, Michael Bent, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry and Kieran Marmion provide the most interest for me.

Depending on Cian Healy's fitness, both replacement props are in with a shout of making the World Cup, while Marmion is the great unknown as potential back up at this level to Conor Murray.

There is an edge to Ryan, Henderson, Tuohy and Henry I really like. Game on.

Belfast Telegraph


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