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Comment: What there is to play for in Ireland's friendly World Cup warm-up games

 

Injury concern: Johnny Sexton is nursing a thumb problem
Injury concern: Johnny Sexton is nursing a thumb problem
Joe Schmidt
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The build-up to the second Ashes Test, the start of both the Irish and English Premier Leagues, the Ulster Grand Prix, the first of the FedEx Cup play-offs and, just across town, the small matter of the chase for Sam Maguire in Croke Park.

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Yes, the first of Ireland's World Cup warm-ups faces an uphill struggle in the battle for eyeballs this weekend, but for players and committed fans alike, Saturday afternoon signals one thing - summer is over.

This series of games, beginning with Italy, taking in a trip to Twickenham and concluding with a home and away double versus Wales, matters little in terms of results, the archetypal phony wars.

The sight of the rugby back in front of us either at the Aviva Stadium or on our screens will bring a brief joy, lasting until the quality of the games becomes apparent.

Indeed, these are the ones deserving of the 'friendly' tag that the ill-informed or unconverted will often try to slap upon a November Test series. Certainly it would be remiss to suggest that this quartet will offer any answers to the multiple questions raised by the most recent Six Nations.

Whether it be four wins, four losses or something in between, it'll be Yokohama or perhaps even later before we can say with any confidence whether this Irish squad is the one that beat the All Blacks last autumn or the version bullied by England and then held at arm's length by Wales in the spring.

They can still, though, have a profound effect on the upcoming tournament in Japan and the names that will be making the long trip east in a little over a month's time.

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The IRFU's squad update issued yesterday, cutting the panel from 45 to 43 with Ultan Dillane and Rory Scannell returning to their provinces, offered a timely reminder that the crunch is coming.

Everyone knows that 12 of those assembled in Carton House today, when the squad will slip back into their usual game-week routine, will be cut between now and September 8. To use Ulster as an example, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Dan McFarland's squad send four, eight or any number in between. While Joe Schmidt will have a much clearer idea than us on the outside, there's much to sort out over the coming weeks.

Although the case of Andrew Trimble's warm-up showings four years ago - the Ulster winger stood out but couldn't find his way back into the travelling squad after a long-term foot injury the previous year - show that in such fixtures it is often harder to force your way in than out, there is little point in denying that squads are going to be shaped by who comes through these games unscathed.

From the most famous of their pre-World Cup losses - form Geordan Murphy in 2003 to David Wallace in '11 and Tommy O'Donnell four years ago - Ireland have been bitten by this bug before and lost both Dan Leavy and Sean O'Brien prior to the wider panel even being named.

They are not alone - Wales will be without Taulupe Faletau while New Zealand were given a scare by Brodie Retallick - and more big names will be added to that unfortunate list in the coming weeks.

For a detail obsessive like Schmidt - Ireland will kick-off at 2pm in order to, as best as possible, replicate Japanese conditions, while culinary and cultural lessons have been a part of preparations - such uncertainty is surely irksome.

Johnny Sexton is already dealing with a thumb problem, and there will be a natural inclination to protect a few more of his aging but irreplaceable assets, but the schedule this time around poses an intriguing dilemma. Four years ago, it was thought that Ireland's fixtures were ideal, building slowly to the toughest test against the French to conclude the pool.

The issue came, of course, when what that actually meant was the squad played their toughest three games at the tournament in succession. By the time the quarter-final against Argentina rolled around, the team that took the field was a shell of what had begun as the first-choice XV.

With such a slate, there was little point in even pretending that those warm-up games, in some cases occurring two months prior, held any importance for momentum, but now things are different.

Ireland's presumed biggest hurdles are at the very start of their tournament, just six days apart. Beginning with Scotland, it has been taken as read since the moment the draw was made that their first game, coming on the tournament's third day, will essentially decide who plays the back-to-back world champion All Blacks in the quarter-finals and who gets the prize of the Springboks.

Since then, the landscape has changed somewhat. Rassie Erasmus, as anyone who closely followed his work with Munster expected, appears to have righted the South African ship.

They are yet to return to their fearsome peak but, having restored some structure, shape and sense, they've beaten Australia easily and drawn with the All Blacks this summer. There remains, too, a nagging fear that they are the one side well equipped to replicate the physicality that England used to stump Ireland last February.

Not to be forgotten are Japan, who Ireland face in Shizuoka less than a week after Gregor Townsend's side.

While defeat to the authors of this tournament's biggest ever shock would still constitute a disaster, the Brave Blossoms are presently laying waste to the PNC, already beating Fiji and hammering Tonga.

Ireland, somewhat sluggish starters in recent years, must arrive ready to go.

Jacob Stockdale said: "This block of four games is massively important to hit the ground running going into the World Cup. Italy is all we're focused on."

After such a long pre-season, finally, let the games begin.

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