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Ireland can hit top spot, insists head coach Joe Schmidt

Touchdown: Garry Ringrose
Touchdown: Garry Ringrose
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

If Ireland's World Cup course feels irrecoverably altered by the events of the past week, their head coach remains steadfast in his belief that this squad is capable of seeing history made in his swansong.

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This nation and this tournament historically don't make easy bedfellows but the Kiwi, who will exit stage left after six years in the job once Ireland's run is over, does not feel that Shizuoka has already been added to the list of shudder-inducing cities like Lens, Bordeaux and Cardiff.

While the loss to Japan made headlines the world over, and ignited a competition that's previous unforgettable shock, Uruguay beating Fiji, promised to have no bearing on the knockouts, Schmidt claims it has not been a dent to the confidence.

"No," said the three-time Six Nations winner simply, of whether his belief in what they could achieve together has waned.

"I guess before the tournament, Japan worried me, probably more than Scotland in a lot of ways because we know Scotland inside out. We had only lost one of our last seven games against Scotland.

"It was the whole equation of Japan being capable of that outstanding effort, the fact that their games are nicely spaced. They are the home nation and it was disappointing when the home nation got beaten out the last time.

"I know that it's a real advantage to have the host nation in the tournament because interest levels stay up and we knew that they'd be really challenging.

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"So I think for us, the biggest disappointment is you've got to have confidence after the first 20 minutes, you've gone down there, you've scored two tries, you feel like you've got a degree of control on the game. Our scrum's very strong, it's disappointing to concede that scrum penalty and again the feedback is that it was a tough call.

"But you've got to get above that and continue to be positive, and I'm still incredibly positive about this group.

"They are such a good group of young men that they are determined to make sure we get it right in these next two games and then beyond that," he said.

Regardless of the seismic shock of Japan, anything less than victories against Russia tomorrow and Samoa next Saturday would qualify as an even greater unwanted surprise.

The next comparable challenge comes only in a presumed quarter-final. Ireland have lost control of their own destiny when it comes to topping the pool and banking that extra day of rest before the last eight clash. When it comes to the opponent though, almost certain to be New Zealand if they win the pool, South Africa if they don't, Schmidt is not losing much sleep.

"It doesn't matter which team you play in the pool next door to us, it (would be) a monumental game," he said.

"It is probably the two form teams, maybe along with England, in the world at the moment and we'd like to think we can be in that mix and we have to maintain our focus on what's immediately in front of us with these next two games, and then attempt to really reach that level in the quarter-final."

Having made a host of changes to his side for the game against Russia - including slotting Ulster back-rower Jordi Murphy straight into his starting line-up after he was summoned as an injury replacement - one notable absentee remains Robbie Henshaw who injured his hamstring in Chiba before the side had even began their campaign.

Essentially working with a squad of 30 players thus far, the gamble of keeping the Leinster centre in Japan for later involvement has put a strain on the rest of the backline where Garry Ringrose will start once again having already tolled up plenty of minutes thus far.

Furthermore, Ireland finished the loss to Japan with Jacob Stockdale at full-back, Luke McGrath on the wing and Jordan Larmour in the midfield. Resources have been stretched.

"I think that under the rules of the tournament if he's not here then he's not in the squad and then you can't use him when you get to the business end," reasoned Schmidt.

"So we could have replaced Robbie Henshaw with somebody else but we knew that he'd be on the cusp of being ready for the game (tomorrow) and he is but we feel that Garry is fully fit and there's less risk. The sooner we play Robbie, just with that hamstring, the more risk there is.

"So we can build a little bit more volume into what he's doing and we'd like to think that we're still in control of our destiny. If we can get the win (tomorrow) and we can get a win against Samoa then there's a good chance we qualify.

"If we can pick up a bonus point or two then we definitely qualify so from that perspective to have Robbie available for Samoa and then into a quarter-final potentially against the All Blacks or South Africa or Italy, whoever it is, Robbie is a pretty big player for us and has a lot of respect within the squad.

"He's got good World Cup experience. I thought he was phenomenal in the French game last time (2015) when we did qualify from our pool.

"Yeah, for all those reasons, we kept Robbie here."

Like so many of the debated decisions thus far, whether it was worth it will only become clear come quarter-final time.

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster), A Conway (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), K Earls (Munster), J Sexton (capt), L McGrath (both Leinster), D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, John Ryan, T Beirne, J Kleyn (all Munster), R Ruddock (Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster), J Murphy (Ulster). Replacements: S Cronin, A Porter, T Furlong (all Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), CJ Stander, J Carbery (both Munster), J Carty (Connacht), J Larmour (Leinster).

Russia: Vasily Artemyev; German Davydov, Igor Galinovskiy, Kirill Golosnitskiy, Denis Simplikevich; Ramil Gaisin, Dmitry Perov; Andrey Polivalov, Evgeny Matveev, Kirill Gotovtsev, Andrey Garbuzov, Bodgan Fedotko; Anton Sychev, Tagir Gadzhiev, Victor Gresev.

Replacements: Selskii, Morozov, Podrezov, Ostrikov, Elgin, Ianiushkin, Khodin, Ostroushkosday.

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