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Portugal camp is vital for building unity in Ireland squad, says Rory Best

 

All smiles: Bundee Aki and Rory Best at Qunto do Lago
All smiles: Bundee Aki and Rory Best at Qunto do Lago

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Even legendary cricketers were locked out of Ireland's Portuguese resort last week as Joe Schmidt put his squad into lockdown mode and ramped things up for a bruising three weeks ahead.

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A series of official bulletins delivered through the IRFU's official channels confirmed that it is hot on the Algarve and, indeed, that the heavily perspiring players were working hard ahead of a triple-header of tough internationals against England, Wales and Wales again.

Security is so tight that former England international Kevin Pietersen complained about being asked to leave The Campus facility where Ireland are stepping up preparations.

Although Joe Schmidt's hope that a 2pm kick-off for the Ireland v Italy game would help his team acclimatise for the tropical conditions at the World Cup was ruined by the Irish weather, he's getting more of what he wanted now.

The early forecasts indicate that Saturday's visit to Twickenham will be played in hot sunshine, exactly the kind of conditions the head coach was looking for his charges to experience ahead of the tournament. which will be played in similar conditions.

Today, they open their doors to a small number of travelling media in Quinto do Lago. Having done a week in Spain ahead of their 2018 Grand Slam, Ireland spent a week here before the Six Nations and found it more to their liking.

Schmidt didn't do a warm-weather camp before the last World Cup in England and Wales, but he feels the climate will play more of a role at this tournament.

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He'll also hope that getting out of their routine will help.

The players liked it so much here that many of them returned on holidays this summer, combining their beach time with access to the facilities as they kept on top of their fitness regimes with the World Cup in mind.

For all that they have been living in each others' pockets since June 16 already, the chance to get out of Ireland is one they relish.

Captain Rory Best believes this camp will be a an important piece in building the spirit needed in Japan.

"It's a good opportunity to work hard in some fairly hot conditions," the Ulster veteran said.

"The down days are brilliant, to get away. Some boys will go to the beach and some will play golf. Some will just hang around somewhere.

Ireland hoping fun in the sun will reap World Cup rewards."That's the sort of stuff that will be good, just to spend a bit more time," added Best.

"I'm sure the squad will be trimmed down a little bit and it's just to get away from the distractions.

"When you've a down day in Ireland, you get a little bit disjointed, whereas when we're all away together, we'll all have a down day together, we'll probably go out for dinner certainly in a couple of big groups if not the entire group together and just spending time.

"It's something you take for granted because everyone knows each other so well through the provincial set-ups and it's a reasonably established and settled squad, and you can take for granted sometimes that you need to spend a bit of time together and find out what's going on, find out how CJ (Stander) got on at the birth of his child and congratulate him.

"The rumours are he fainted from it all but I'm not sure they're true! Little silly things like that, to chat about anything other than rugby, spending time getting to know people."

Of course, Schmidt will be hoping that his 40 players form a close bond this week so that the 31 men who eventually make their way to Japan in four weeks' time are tight-knit and willing to work and battle for one another.

His focus will also be on having the team in the best shape possible for the bruising schedule that sees them take on Scotland and Japan in six days, before facing the sizeable challenge of limited, but physical, Russian and Samoan teams ahead of a hoped-for run in the knock-outs.

Ireland were bullied by England and Wales in the Six Nations and Saracens repeated the trick against the two leading provinces in Europe, so strength and conditioning coach Jason Cowman and his team are charged with making sure the squad are fitter, faster and stronger.

Scrum coach Greg Feek is aiming for a good blend.

"Just being away from home a bit and out of your comfort zone a little bit, even if Portugal is a fantastic place to be," he said. "It will be good in terms of that we will knuckle down. We have got good facilities, and it is also good to get the group good and tight together, some camaraderie."

The hard yards could have a knock-on effect when Ireland take on a battle-hardened England team at Twickenham, while things don't get any easier with back-to-back fixtures against the World's No.1 team, Wales, before the plane leaves for Japan.

Performances will be key, but a couple of results would be nice. Schmidt is hoping the work carried out behind the scenes in Portugal will bear fruit.

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