There is nothing friendly about a rugby Test match. August will see Ireland begin a four-game series against Six Nations teams to prepare for the World Cup.
First up is Italy at home on Saturday 4th August. The Italians have not had a good run of form against Ireland in recent years and even with some experimentation in the Irish setup, the trend is likely to continue.
How much experimentation will Joe play around with? Probably not a lot. You have to believe that he and his team have a clear idea of the thirty-one member squad that they plan to bring to Japan.
I suspect a strong team will be named, possibly even the starting team for the opening World Cup game against Scotland. Players that have had the Summer off need to get back up to match fitness and they don’t have a lot of time to do so.
Going into an international series cold is far from ideal preparation. The pre-World Cup warm-up games stand alone in the Test rugby calendar. With the offsetting of seasons, north and south, there are always teams winding up or down their seasons when the hemispheres play, but this is one of the only windows where players will have had up to six weeks with no rugby at all.
Avoiding injury has got to be a prime concern for everyone involved, but it also gives the fringe players something to play for. Even though you might be at the back of Joe’s mind now, there is still a chance. Keep raising your game and you can have some hope that you will be asked to cover should someone ahead of you have bad luck. No one wants to see another player take a bad injury, but as the saying goes, it would be an ill wind that blew no good.
There is a nice, two-week gap before the second of the warm-ups. We face England in Twickenham Stadium on Saturday 24th August. This game is a much bigger challenge. Our old enemy bullied us on the park in the Six Nations game this year and are likely to try to do so again.
Let’s not look for revenge; that never works. If we try to match them upfront, we may win but there will be a lot of injuries. Rather let’s take a leaf out of Scotland’s book; they ran England close this year and were unlucky not to hold out for a rare victory.
Ireland may not like to play as unstructured as Scotland sometimes do, but a free flowing game with lots of ball on the wing, combined with hard carries in the center should space become available will have a better effect, I think, than simply trying to out-muscle a stronger team.
The series rounds out with a double header against Wales. The first of the games is at home on Saturday 31st August, followed a week later by a game in the Principality Stadium on Saturday 7th September.
Wales have been a bogey team for Ireland, especially at World Cups. There is not much chance that we will meet them in the competition until semi-final stage at the earliest. Winning a warm-up game means nothing and these fixtures should only see Joe give some of the second string team a run out.
In terms of competition planning, we play the toughest pool game first, followed by the second. It is likely that we will need the strongest team in the first two weeks. That’s why I hope Joe will use the Wales games to rest some of that starting team.
There is a two week gap before the real show begins. Our first game of the World Cup is against Scotland on Sunday 22nd September.
All the warm-up excitement is nothing compared to the rugby fever that is going to grip the country come the end of September.
The word that is commonly used by sports teams is momentum. There is some idea, that if you win the game today that somehow it will have a positive effect on the next game. I’m afraid that is not really true.
Realistically, you could only attribute a small portion of the confidence gained from the last game to the performance of the next. Each game is on its own.
I am hoping that Ireland keep some tricks up their sleaves in this warm-up series and do not try to win games that have little meaning in the pursuit of meaningless “momentum”. All that matters is our winning all four pool games come Autumn.