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Tony Ward: Time for Ireland to trample the fear and play from the heart at the Rugby World Cup

 

Crunch time: Ireland squad trains at Fukuoka Stadium
Crunch time: Ireland squad trains at Fukuoka Stadium

By Tony Ward

I'm not sure if my own feelings are reflective of many out there but as a global sporting event Japan 2019 has failed thus far to float this boat.

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Aside from our debacle when coming second to the host nation (which has nothing whatsoever to do with my overall perception I might add) we have been loaded with predictability. The paint drying variety.

And make no mistake we are up there with the best when it comes to making excuses and players towing that management line. All that said when we come to the first relatively meaningful weekend of the tournament - the round set to determine the quarter final pairings - and the tournament organisers declare two games null and void, sorry cancelled (at a World Cup?)

What we are witnessing is beyond a farce. Yes, it is extremely difficult to predict climatic elements but, come on, it's the typhoon season around the Japanese mainland and there's no plan B in place to get the requisite matches played. You couldn't make it up.

It reflects poorly on World Rugby, on Rugby World Cup, on the host nation and more than anything on the game itself as a truly professional global product still evolving.

The uncertainty surrounding this weekend is shambolic. We cannot battle the elements but surely it is not asking too much of the organisers that they plan for every eventuality in advance accordingly.

To think that there is even the remotest possibility of a team, any team, having to return home because of the inability to stage a World Cup match beggars belief. But back to action on the pitch or so we hope. Our knockout tournament effectively begins today with this last 16 Samoan tilt in all but name at the Fukuoka Prefecture.

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And please can we banish this nonsense about hidden game plans and secret moves?

There are no concealed ace cards. Joe Schmidt is the successful coach and master tactician he has become at the highest level because of his ability to read the next opponent and carry out his prep work accordingly but also meticulously. On the assumption we get through today, and irrespective of whether it be South Africa or New Zealand in the quarter final, Schmidt will plan his strategy and within that, his moves accordingly.

In other words he will base his modus operandi on the make up of the opposition allied to the individual strengths of his own players that he has in situ on the day. Same now as it has always been so please may we be spared the 'holding back' theories. And in that key respect today is the day to unleash the full monty. The fabled 'up the sleeve' line being pedalled since the pre World Cup friendlies has run its course.

Schmidt and his management have put together close to the strongest combination at this point in time. Clearly Peter O'Mahony is under pressure (although he would still be in my starting line up for the last eight) hence Tadgh Beirne's selection in the back row and as a third line out alternative out of touch. With Rhys Ruddock playing his best rugby ever and Garry Ringrose also back close to his best, it would mark blindside flank and outside centre as the two areas most under the spotlight in order to move beyond today.

Before the tournament kicked off, in the final friendly at home to the Welsh, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw made for the most effective pairing of the various combinations tried. That said Ringrose is back close to his best and were Henshaw, in this maiden World Cup run, to produce anything close to that Welsh form in Dublin then it would have to be Henshaw wearing twelve with Ringrose at thirteen going forward.

As for the backrow I still favour the O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander combination given that Jack Conan is out of the equation and with the on-fire Ruddock alongside Beirne as cover for the back five forward positions.

The other key change and potentially the most significant is in the last line where Rob Kearney while again the rock of solidity lacks Jordan Larmour's brazenness and guile on the counter or indeed when hitting the line. Schmidt's own moral courage will be tested, obviously pending Larmour's performance against the Samoans, but when it comes to making that critical full back call against the Springboks or All Blacks in a week's time. Ahead of today's 11.45am kick off, and obviously depending on how it pans out, I would see the jerseys numbered six, 13, 16, 19 and 20 as those most exposed to possible change. Specifically it would mean O'Mahony, Ringrose, Sean Cronin (technically not as well equipped as Niall Scannell but with much more explosive impact off the bench), Beirne and Ruddock wearing those numbers in the last eight.

The Larmour over Kearney call will make for a severe test of the head coach in what could prove his final game for outside of Johnny Sexton there is no player in whom Schmidt continues to place greater faith than Kearney. In both cases (Sexton and Kearney) I get that. But if we are to threaten that quarter final glass ceiling than it is specifically to Larmour, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale and Ringrose our soon-to-depart greatest ever head coach must look.

Obviously today's performance will have a big impact in what lies immediately ahead.

He did make some reference to the typhoon being a distraction ahead of this Samoan shoot out. Park it, Joe. We've had a nine-day turnaround since that abject display against the Russians and at least another week to come if we get through today. Let's cut the mystique, trample the fear and play from the heart.

Nobody is suggesting a forced pass agenda but can we please, when it is appropriate, take on the Islanders in their own game of derring do.

We have the skill set, we have the individuals, all we need is the will. We are much better rugby players than the rest of the watching world gives us credit for. We're back on the dance floor - now let's dance.

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