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Fringe men must take final chance to leave impression on Schmidt

By Tony Ward

Ireland took a big psychological step in the right direction last week. Of course we were expected to beat the Canadians convincingly, but Joe Schmidt's men launched their assault on the World Cup with conviction.

The message they sent out was that this is a well-tutored, highly committed squad that can push anyone - New Zealand included - to the limit.

No team will want to play Ireland - and I don't think you could have said that at any previous World Cup, with respect to the side who lost out so heroically to Australia in 1991.

Hopes were particularly high in the build-up to 2007 (although it turned out to be our worst World Cup to date), but did anyone really believe that other nations were in fear of meeting Ireland?

But now, eight years on and with a different management, different mindset and different level of performance, our aspirations appear well placed.

We will learn a lot more about our prospects in a fortnight when we take on France - and we can expect something completely different from Les Bleus compared to the unconvincing display we saw against Romania on Wednesday.

The Oaks were brave to a fault and will be no pushovers at Wembley - but they will not be as tough as the Romania side my generation played against in the 1980s.

In the Ceausescu age, that Romanian team had a level of professionalism ahead of their time. Mostly, they were soldiers by trade, but they were effectively full-time rugby players.

I toured there in 1982 at the height of the dictator's attempt to pay off foreign debt. The food and fuel shortage, and low standard of living, was staggering, yet rugby stayed the pace.

The fall of the Communist regime in 1989 coincided with the decline of the game in the next strongest nation outside of the then Big Five in the northern hemisphere. It has been an uphill battle for Romanian rugby ever since.

And having to play the top two teams in the pool just four days apart could hardly be described as 'leg-up' stuff from World Rugby either.

Ireland are the beneficiaries, as Scotland were when facing Japan four days on from the Brave Blossoms' stunning victory over South Africa.

For the team with the short turnaround, the toll is massive.

It is an unfair playing field, but Schmidt will be ruthless in looking to exploit that advantage to the full, while also enjoying the luxury of trying different combinations and providing game-time for most of his fringe men.

I'm sure the coach has numbers one to 10 fixed in his mind to face the Italians and French.

To that add both Kearney brothers and Jared Payne, leaving just two positions up for grabs. That's two from Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo for one wing and one centre slot.

Tomorrow's game represents the last-chance saloon for some players if they want to figure at all in the bigger games to come.

Even with 12 changes from last week's opener, it represents a sensible selection. I might have differed at inside-centre and outside-half, but beyond that I'm with Schmidt all the way.

The pack picked itself, once Cian Healy was deemed fit. Of the eight named, only Healy and Jamie Heaslip will start against the Italians and French, while Chris Henry, Donnacha Ryan and Nathan White will most likely make the bench.

For Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner and Jordi Murphy, this is the one real opportunity to convince Schmidt to re-assess his thoughts.

Behind the scrum, Eoin Reddan deserves a run from the off, while there must be a temptation to switch Ian Madigan from out-half to scrum-half in the final quarter if Ireland are well ahead, with Paddy Jackson coming in at No.10.

While I get the rationale behind giving Madigan the steering wheel from the start, I would have gone with Jackson.

As for the centre pairing, my head is fried. You could take any two from Payne, Cave, Henshaw, Fitzgerald and Earls.

Payne's place looks guaranteed, and Henshaw remains in pole position if he recovers from his hamstring injury.

But the attraction of having at least two of the X-factor faction - Fitzgerald, Earls and Zebo - on board is appealing, and here again I am with Schmidt in looking to the wider picture beyond tomorrow.

With Rob Kearney on the bench, the coach could switch Zebo to his more comfortable wing slot mid-match, allowing Earls to move to the centre alongside Payne.

For Cave, much like Toner and Strauss, this is the big one. Fail to register tomorrow and it could be tackle bag support from here on in. And expect the replacements to get a good run - it is a bench with intent, and Jackson in particular will have a point to prove.

As for the Oaks, it is difficult not to feel for them in the light of Wednesday's showing, but Schmidt doesn't do compassion. Take Ireland by 30-plus.

Belfast Telegraph


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