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Schmidt's men have to avoid a slow start


Key man: James Ryan will have a big part to play if Ireland are to beat Scotland in their opening World Cup game
Key man: James Ryan will have a big part to play if Ireland are to beat Scotland in their opening World Cup game
Joe Schmidt

By Tony Ward

Pinch yourself. Hard to believe, I know, but it's finally under way. When Japan and Russia locked heads in the Tokyo Stadium yesterday, the ninth Rugby World Club was up and running. Tomorrow in Yokohama ourselves and the Scots meet for only the second time in this great rugby event.

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It is not the football equivalent in terms of global appeal but it is a work in progress given that rugby has still well over a century in professionalism to make up.

Back in 1987, the Scottish (SRU) and Irish (IRFU) governing bodies were dragged kicking and screaming to the inaugural Webb Ellis tournament staged in Australia and New Zealand.

Now 32 years on and both Celtic nations will grind to a halt (metaphorically anyway) as the Pool A decider in all but name comes to fruition in the opening round.

It is the opposite extreme to Cardiff four years ago when the breakdown in 2015 saw us battered and bruised against the French in the final Pool game before literally running out of resources seven days on against the Pumas in our four-yearly glass-ceiling encounter in the last eight.

No such complaints this time around although surely there has to be a better way administratively than having Pool deciders in Groups A and B (New Zealand v South Africa) in the opening matches. But it is what it is for now.

I guess if there is one more generalised criticism that could be levelled at Joe Schmidt's (right) teams over recent times, it is that element of slowness off the mark, that inability to hit the ground really running.

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Often times the key is in the warm-up. When you detect that steely edge to contact and with the head coach (unlike most others) in the middle of it then you can be pretty sure there's a big Irish performance, from the get- go, coming our way.

The demands are a lot more intense than the Six Nations although structured in a different way. There is some room for manoeuvre within the pool where losing one match is not fatal. I noticed fit-again Scottish back-rower John Barclay describing Ireland as coming into this World Cup "under the radar". Back at ya, John.

With matches against the French and Georgians under their belts as opposed to the more highly profiled English, Welsh and Irish friendly combinations, the Scots have hardly registered save for turning a tonking in Paris into an Edinburgh win seven days on.

Gregor Townsend, through his mirror image in Finn Russell, favours a high-risk, high-tempo offloading game and in Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour, they have a back three more than capable of putting Ireland to the sword in the outside channels.

The key of course will be in the quality of forward ammunition. Add to that the conditions predicted and you'd have to say it's advantage Ireland.

I stand open to correction here but you could count on one hand the number of box-kicks in the four warm-up games combined. A declared change in strategy? Don't you believe it. Cometh the hour, cometh the need, cometh the appropriate tactic.

I was asked at a World Cup Charity event in the Ulster Reform Club in Belfast in midweek just what is it that makes Schmidt the most successful coach in our rugby-playing history.

There are many strings to Schmidt's bow but above all is the ability to adapt his strategy on a game-by-game basis. Of course he is planning ahead (specifically to Japan next up) but within his chosen squad the sole focus is on horses for courses selection.

Yes, it will be underpinned by form but strategically it's built around the idiosyncrasies and what he perceives the potential weaknesses of the opposition.

Despite the Twickenham drubbing, it's been a constructive build-up for Ireland. Public expectation has been dampened since 2018 and that's no bad thing. I do have a concern over the shift in second-row emphasis from lineout to scrum as, aside from Niall Scannell (rightly positioned at three in the hooker pecking order), the reliability of the top two - Rory Best and Sean Cronin - is not good out of touch.

I would have had Devin Toner on board, for Best more than anybody, but it is the coach's call and in Joe I too have had total trust up until now. That said the omission of an almost seven-foot unit at four in the line is difficult to rationalise.

To lose tomorrow would not be the end of the world. That said, defeat in the opening game would put us on the back foot and eat away at confidence and morale irrespective of whether it is to be New Zealand or South Africa in the quarter-final. To that end, the six-day turnaround to facing the host nation in Shizuoka Stadium is every bit as important as the Scottish outcome. While tomorrow is a bit of a journey into the unknown given the location and timing of the fixture, the smart money is on Ireland to hit the ground running and so is mine.

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