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Ruaidhri O'Connor: This is the perfect chance to build momentum

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Silly season comes to an end at 4pm today. This time next week, Ireland will be in Japan and the World Cup will be tantalisingly close.

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All they need to do this afternoon is get through 80 minutes against the Welsh while showing enough in their performance to make it a fitting farewell to the Aviva Stadium for their coach and captain, generating a little momentum so they land in The Land of the Rising Sun with the wind in their sails.

An injury at this stage would be the cruellest blow of all.

Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland would sacrifice the result for 23 fit players.

If they're being greedy, they'll demand a performance as well but the health and safety of their leading men is paramount.

For Schmidt and Rory Best, today will bring some emotion as they say goodbye to a stadium on which they've left a lasting imprint, while both men will be mindful of the need to get the home crowd behind them as they depart for Japan.

The Six Nations wounded this team and the record loss to England two weeks ago further dented the public belief in their capacity to make some history in the coming months.

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A big performance against Wales, albeit in a warm-up game, would help lift the mood outside of the team.

For all that their form dipped earlier this season and questions remain about the effectiveness of the game-plan, and the form of some senior men, they remain a team packed with quality players.

Unfair as it may seem, Schmidt's legacy will be shaped by the next two months, but he deserves a proper send-off after master-minding so many great days for the fans who have packed this stadium since 2013.

That won't be front and centre of the coach's thoughts, however, as he approaches the final curtain.

What he wants to see is a cohesive, powerful performance against a team that nearly became the first to keep his Irish team to nil in Cardiff last March.

With most of their front-liners back in the team, Gatland is equally looking for a display to propel his team on to their campaign full of belief.

Much of the focus will centre around Johnny Sexton as he returns to the field of play for the first time since May.

The team's talisman has suffered two relatively minor setbacks in pre-season and needs around an hour to prove himself fit for Scotland in 15 days time.

Even if the result is in the balance, Jack Carty will be on to steer the ship home in the final quarter.

Schmidt has balanced his selections over the past three weeks, but for Jack Conan and CJ Stander there is an opportunity to create a destructive partnership that could form two-thirds of a very strong Irish back-row. In this post-Devin Toner world, James Ryan will lead the lineout and his work with Rory Best will be closely watched as Jean Kleyn gets a chance to prove his coach right for investing so much faith at this stage of the cycle.

Behind the scrum, the powerful pairing of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw can cement their place as the first-choice pairing, with Garry Ringrose offering a game-changing option off the bench, while Jordan Larmour could do with serving a reminder of the explosive running he offers and Keith Earls will look to get through the day unscathed.

That's really what today is all about. Winning would be a timely bonus.

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