Against the backdrop of the Typhoon Hagibis fallout, Ireland take on Samoa in Fukuoka on Saturday at 11.45 IRE time knowing that a bonus point win will seal their place in the Rugby World Cup Quarter Finals regardless of what happens with the increasingly doomed looking Pool A decider Japan v Scotland. PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy runs the rule over Ireland’s last chance to get some proper momentum before a likely knockout clash with the awesome All Blacks.
EARLY BOOKING OFFER – GET 10% OFF & SECURE YOUR PLACE WITH A 40% DEPOSIT *. USE COUPON CODE ‘earlybook10off’ WHEN BOOKING TO CLAIM
*Offer ends on 31st December 2020. Ts&Cs apply.
And so we reach the final leg of what has been by far the most intriguing (possibly nerve-wracking) Pool at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with a hopefully refreshed Irish squad getting an ideal hit out against a Samoan side that represents a watered-down version of the Super Rugby style that New Zealand play.
Leaving aside the weather-related chaos of the closing weekend of Pool games, for Joe, his staff and the matchday 23, this game stands alone as an acid test of Ireland’s credentials for the crunch end of the tournament.
Best horses for this course
With the travails of the last few weeks, we can all be sure that Joe and his management are now picking the best possible line up they can based on form and fitness. Any thoughts of rotation are gone out the window and while the All Blacks and Springboks rest up for an extended run into the Quarter Finals, Ireland face the hard-hitting, ‘go-for-broke’ Samoans knowing that it is sh*t or bust time. In terms of selection, Joe Schmidt has gone for his frontliners, with only Tadhg Beirne and Jordan Larmour representing any sort of a surprise in the starting 15. With Peter O’Mahony struggling for form and fitness after three games, plus Rob Kearney struggling in training this week, these selections give two exciting players a fantastic chance to stake a claim to start into the knockout stages. Beirne is a really dynamic selection that gives great lineout options plus a real edge at the breakdown. Freeing him up from second-row duties should be a breath of fresh air for him and with the Samoans likely to want to play everything, it’s not hard to see him having a real influence on the game. Apart from his nearly disastrous intercept pass in the final stages of the Japan defeat, Larmour has played really well at the World Cup, showing good aerial skills, improved positional sense and an ever-present broken field danger. His footwork is always a threat and while he won’t be expecting Samoa to kick out of choice on Saturday, if Henshaw and Aki get their pressure defence right, it may be that Samoa get forced to kick long and loose, which would be right up his street. Keith Earls has looked in great form in the tournament so far and with Jacob Stockdale itching for a first World Cup try and Andrew Conway poised on the bench, our back three looks really exciting.
Return of Robbie
Finally, we’re getting to see Robbie Henshaw debut at the Rugby World Cup and it will be intriguing to see how he copes with it all. With a very disrupted training programme plus very few minutes in the legs this year, there is a risk of him being exposed against match hardened opposition, so I think we’ll all be watching closely for any knocks that he picks up. While he’s generally a player that plays very well fresh, there’s no way he could have started a Quarter Final without getting a run out here so its fingers crossed he can bring his top form to bear. With his hard running, defensive timing and breakdown combativeness, he’s a key man for us on Saturday, particularly if he can galvanise a midfield partner in Bundee Aki who looked to be really struggling against Russia. Garry Ringrose has earned his rest and with Chris Farrell on his way back from his HIA issues, it will be Earls or Larmour that will provide the midfield cover here.
Sexton steps up again
And of course, it is not just Henshaw’s hamstrings that are keeping us up at night. With the way the Pool has gone, the availability of Johnny Sexton has become the single most important issue for Ireland’s gameplan and despite continuing to nurse a quad/groin issue, our talisman is back in the number 10 slot for tomorrow’s game. His game management, physicality, and focus are going to be key if Ireland are to rediscover the form and accuracy of their opening Scotland win. However, Joe’s going to be hoping that he can get Johnny off the pitch as early as possible. Of course, that wouldn’t just be a case of getting Johnny back in cotton wool but also giving much-needed game time at outhalf to a fit-again Joey Carbery. It’s going to be really important for Joey and the squad that he can get on the pitch and confidently close out a game that delivers as close to an 80 minute performance as possible.
Front five hold the key
After getting outsmarted by the Japanese and making hard work of the Russians, Ireland have their first choice front five back on the park for Samoa and will be looking for a big shift from these key men to set the tone right from the off. There’s no doubt that they needed a break from the pressure cooker after the Japan loss and with some R&R, plus a good training week reported coming into this one, there will be limited excuses if we don’t look sharp in the set-piece and contact areas on Saturday. Creating a solid platform and go forward ball for Murray and Sexton to dictate the game, particularly aerially via a smart kicking game, will be essential if we’re to take the sting out of Samoan team that only have their pride to play for. Ireland’s gameplan will be simple for this one – put pressure on every aspect of the Samoan game, set piece, breakdown, back three positioning, everything. Andy Farrell will have been in his men’s ears all weak about line speed and pressure, turning defence into attack, negating the Samoan counter-attack and putting their discipline under maximum duress. Ireland need the bonus point victory so we can expect to see penalties kicked for the corner and Simon Easterby’s maul strategy heavily used as an offensive arrow head.
Trouble in paradise
With all the talk around the Typhoon Hagibis cancellations (and we won’t know until Sunday morning whether Japan v Scotland is going to happen), the poor state of the pitch in Fukuoka is another massive PR own goal for the under-siege organisers. For any top flight competition, having to play on a newly relaid pitch is a poor look but at a Rugby World Cup, it really isn’t acceptable. The sight of Irish players hiding a ball under the turf during the Captain’s Run says it all! And there are real risks to the players, with some already nursing injuries, facing a very committed and sometimes overly so opposition. It’s hard not to feel like the All Blacks will be sat back resting in their hotel, happy in the reality that it’s us and not them. Hopefully, the Irish team can block out this and the overall typhoon controversy to just focus on the task at hand but it’s really not easy. As for the cancellations, without knowing all the background details of what or wasn’t tried to sort the whole sorry mess out, one can safely say that it doesn’t look great and reflects poorly on World Rugby and the tournament organisers. The big losers here are the thousands of fans who are now out of pocket and stuck in a potentially dangerous storm. It’s hard not to feel like the ramifications of this debacle and other aspects of the World Cup like refereeing standards etc. won’t be felt by the sport for many years to come.
Time to get back on track
Back to the game and I really do expect to see a much improved and controlled Irish performance. Samoa are missing key men and are coming in off the back of a brave but attritional defeat by Japan. They represent a dangerous but ideal opposition for Ireland at this stage of the tournament. With our likeliest route to that long-awaited Semi-Final place blocked by the All Blacks, it’s now or never for this Irish team under Joe. I know it gets its fair share of criticism at times but I think we’d all settle for a textbook display of ‘Joe Ball’ in this one, with the bonus point secured by the Joey and the bench closers. And that’s what I’m expecting to see.