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Ireland boss staging a dress rehearsal for World Cup in Six Nations finish

 

Sign here: Ireland coach Joe Schmidt at the squad’s open training session at Queen’s University RFC in Belfast
Sign here: Ireland coach Joe Schmidt at the squad’s open training session at Queen’s University RFC in Belfast
Back in: Rory Best will return to the team after being rested

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

When talk of the World Cup surfaces at this remove it usually centres around Ireland's potential quarter-final against the Springboks or the All Blacks.

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Eagle-eyed supporters will have noted yesterday's news that Lood de Jager is out for the year and considered the consequences for Rassie Erasmus' men in October.

South Africa may be the most likely opponent for that Tokyo date, but for Joe Schmidt and the Ireland management the focus will be on getting there.

And to do that, they must negotiate a tricky, front-loaded start that is the opposite of their schedule in 2015.

Back then, the pool built steadily to that climactic Cardiff afternoon when Schmidt's side got the better of France and were left counting the stricken bodies.

This autumn, they begin on Sunday, September 22 in Yokohama against Scotland before taking on Japan in Shizuoka on Saturday, September 28.

Should they successfully negotiate those games they will then have 21 days with two matches against Russia and Samoa to get ready for a quarter-final.

So there is a real need to hit the ground running, which is something Schmidt admits his side have struggled to do in tournament windows in the past.

He'll have four pre-tournament matches to get the team primed but managing the resources through two key games in six days is another challenge. The next 11 days is being viewed as a dry run.

"We've got a six-day turnaround to Wales," Schmidt said ahead of this Sunday's clash with France. "We start the World Cup with Scotland and then a six-day turnaround to Japan, so that's a perfect opportunity to get as close as we can in a competition to where we'll need to be, come the Rugby World Cup."

So what does that look like for an Irish team looking to find form after a tricky few weeks?

Having spread his net wide by using 34 players in the Six Nations to date, the coach is likely to focus his selection in the coming weeks.

Judging by the bodies in attendance at last Friday's training session, he will have close to his strongest panel available.

Devin Toner is out, Joey Carbery is unlikely to be fit and Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy are in a race to get back in, but the selection picture looks far healthier than it has done since those heady days before the England game.

It has been apparent that, while they've given everything towards winning the Six Nations, it is not the primary goal of 2019.

Schmidt does not want to lose momentum this spring, but he has admitted that World Cup success would be a suitable way of curing any disappointment felt in the annual Championship.

The focus is on a strong finish and Schmidt will have devised a selection strategy that will make the most of the resources he has available.

Having repaired to Belfast last week for a three-day training camp and a little light relief, the squad assembled at their Kildare base last night to begin preparations for Sunday's game.

Friday's session against the Grand Slam-chasing Under-20s was a relentless 68-minute affair and they'll keep their feet to the floor this week.

Having rested Cian Healy, Rory Best and James Ryan for the trip to Rome, they will be expected to return to the team.

On the outside, this week is all about finding form. Within the camp, there will be a keen focus on doing it while managing the work-load that comes with two massive Tests in six days.

Doing that successfully could have positive ramifications at the business end of the year.

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