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Ireland ready to give Best and Schmidt send-off to be proud of


Big plans: Joe Schmidt (left) and defence coach Andy Farrell at Ireland’s training session at Carton House yesterday
Big plans: Joe Schmidt (left) and defence coach Andy Farrell at Ireland’s training session at Carton House yesterday
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Squad announced, plane tickets booked, only two weeks to go, there is, you feel, a real sense that the World Cup starts here.

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While plenty of debate has been stirred by the games of the past month as Ireland's travelling party was whittled down to 31, tomorrow against Wales always felt like the sole acid test of Ireland's readiness for a tournament where they will be required to hit the ground running.

The defeat to England stung the camp and shook confidence outside it but it was a game where defeat was always likely. Italy two weeks prior was a ramshackle affair etched in the memory only for the injury to Joey Carbery while last week's win over Wales was important in the context of Twickenham but little else.

This Dublin send off for the side, given an agreement put in place between Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland to go close to full throttle in selection, carries greater meaning and nobody in the camp is looking to downplay the fact.

Schmidt was absent from his usual Thursday media duties yesterday - understandably so given he'd had to appear on consecutive Tuesdays in light of the hammering by England and then his 31-man World Cup squad emerging some six days earlier than planned - but in his stead was defence coach Andy Farrell.

The man who will soon chair these team announcements on a more permanent basis had a certain spring in his step at Carton House, like the rest of us no doubt energised by something resembling a Test match after weeks of sides mismatched in either personnel or preparation. 

"This is a proper Test match," said Farrell. "Why? Because Wales are coming full bore and I'm sure that they'll want to get on the plane with a lot of confidence and we're exactly the same.   

"We all know that we've been involved in these big games before and let's make no mistake about it, this, for us, is a big game and there's going to be patches within that game where a good side like Wales are going to have their purple patch and we've got to reach better, that's what we're after from the game."

There'll still be some rustiness - Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw all seeing their first action of the summer - but Farrell threw down the gauntlet to the starters somewhat, declaring that there were still spots up for grabs in the team to take on Scotland in Yokohama on September 22.

"There is not one person within that 31 man squad that will be happy just to be on that plane come a week's time," he said.

"Sure, we've got an idea (of our best team), but the idea has got to be a little bit open minded enough because like I said before, the squad of 31 has been picked but the starting XV hasn't for Scotland, and we're waiting to see what happens within this game as well.

"Scotland is a massive match. All our focus the whole way through pre-season, three months of hard graft, is about Scotland and we make no bones about that. That has been our focus all the way through. Why, because it's our most important match. 

"It's the start at the World Cup and yet it will have a big say in our group."

One key area to watch tomorrow will be the back-row. Ireland have gone for another different combination, this time pairing CJ Stander and Jack Conan together in tandem with Josh van der Flier. Peter O'Mahony steps out having racked up a hefty workload already these past few weeks.

Similar to the midfield, any prediction on Schmit's favourite trio is educated guesswork, so many different combinations have been tried of late. There is a presumption that Conan and Stander are fighting for one spot and the number eight jersey but it will be interesting nonetheless to see them team up here.

"A bit of punch, a bit of grunt, of taking our game towards them on both sides of the ball," said Farrell of what he wants to see. "(We want to be) getting back to our best as far as our breakdown work is concerned.

"They're pretty mobile and in very good nick, all three of them, so we expect them to show that ability and that energy around the field.

"The balance is pretty good and I think the balance of the squad in general for who may come into those positions, or different positions, is one that could work in many different directions as well."

Interesting to note too will be the reception for Jean Kleyn who, perhaps pointedly, gets the start in the second-row.

The Munsterman has come in for some undue criticism this week after being named in the squad when long-serving stalwart Devin Toner is not. The native South African is not Ireland's first project player, nor will he be the last, to take the spot of an indigenous talent given that both James Lowe and Rhys Marshall came to the country before residency laws were tightened.

Farrell does not believe the furore during the week, which even included the two cents of World Rugby Vice President Agustin Pichot, has had much effect on Kleyn.

"You guys know what it's like out here in the bubble. The guys are working so hard at trying to get their own game, their cohesive team game on point that we don't feel that," he said.

"Why? Because we're so focused on our day to day job. All that can go off is Jean going to his room and reading stuff or whatever. It doesn't look like he's been affected to me, because he's trained outstandingly well this morning. His energy, his accuracy, his physicality was there for everyone to see."

On wider critiques of Ireland's chances, the Englishman is similarly nonplussed.

"Criticism is something that people have a right to their own opinion but the criticism within the group, as Rory (Best) explained before, is even stronger. We think it's unbelievably positive to be honest with each other, and I've never seen a more honest environment. It's open and people are able to say what they think, and we've put a lot right in the last couple of weeks and hopefully we'll see that on Saturday," he said.

Anything less would be an ill-fitting way for Schmidt to bid farewell to Dublin, even if Farrell doesn't believe the departing Kiwi coach will give too much thought to his own status.

"He'll ever be the professional that he is," he added.

"He'll be thorough in his last few days of preparation like he was (yesterday) and he will be today and he'll be on point on Saturday as well."



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