The first articles we penned were just over four years ago on the eve of a world cup, a time when we wrote about Isaac Boss, international outcast, making the panel for RWC11. Bossy is still at it, busy making Ireland’s scrum half cohort for the 2015 jamboree resemble the Last of the Summer Wine cast.
There’s still the chance of Marmion getting the nod but the Connacht tyro (TM Dexys) had a poor second half of the 2014-15 season and finished behind John Cooney as the form half-back out west. Joe Schmidt’s still seen fit to select him and as his third season in charge begins, Schmidt’s picks for Ireland have the hallmarks of his Leinster teams. The team against Wales was well balanced, coherent and very definite about what they wanted to do.
At the beginning of his time with Ireland, Schmidt had a check list of what he wanted from his team “A little bit of cohesion. A little bit of clarity. A priority list of what we must do, of what we would like to be able to do and what would be a bonus, and we’ll try to focus on what are the real key things for us. A big part of that is being very collective in whatever we do.”
In contrast to Ireland, the Welsh selection looked place holders for Gatland’s favourites. Wales have a bitch of a group but Wazza has already secured a contract extension so if it doesn’t work out at the RWC he’s covered. In fairness to Gatland, his teams have many of the traits laid out in Schmidt’s manifesto, utilising a well-worn template backed by Halfpenny’s precise goal kicking. The main difference between any Warren-ball performances is physical and Wales’ much publicised conditioning regime gives the impression of a team that will look to out-muscle their opponents while sending Jamie Roberts over the advantage line. After a softening up exercise in Cardiff against Uruguay, the Welsh have to travel to Twickenham for a titanic evening kick off against the hosts. Tasty. They’ll then have only five days to prepare for Fiji who will have over a week off after their second game against Australia. Part of Gatland’s thinking in the build-up to the tournament must be this short turnaround and he’ll hope to be still in the battle heading back to Twickenham for the final pool match against Australia.
Gatland showed during the Six Nations that he’s capable of making adjustments when needed, dropping Hibbard and Ball to introduce Baldwin and Charteris. This gave Wales a much improved lineout and they won in Paris on the back of it before getting within points difference of the title.
Before that Stade de France clash, Baldwin and Charteris last appearance together had been against Fiji in the Millennium Stadium in November. That ended in a narrow 17-13 victory for a reasonably strong Welsh team but that will be way too close for comfort come the World Cup against a Fijian side fresh from winning the Pacific Nations Cup and capable of scoring from anywhere.
The warm up games are a phoney war, remembered mainly for the poor unfortunates who collect injuries rather than for the results. The difference between Ireland and Wales is not just that Ireland looked far further down the track as a rugby team but that they have a much easier draw. We’re well accustomed to hearing about the vagaries of the semi-final lottery in European competition for Irish teams and how it could have all been so different but the rugby gods have smiled on Ireland’s 2015 vintage as far as coming out of the hat in the right order is concerned. Karma, brother. Gets you every time.