Subscriber OnlyRugby World CupColumn

Gordon D’Arcy: Farrell has refused to dwell on Ireland’s Rugby World Cup fixtures schedule. That sends a message to players

Some changes to the laws have balanced the scales which is not a bad thing

As an aperitif the World Cup warm-up matches had enough rugby content, colour and controversy to whet the appetite for the main event which kicks off on Friday night at the Stade de France where the host country and New Zealand go head-to-head.

High tackles, bunker reviews, yellow and red cards, disciplinary hearings and suspensions provided a background ticker tape to the frontline stories, everything from the composition of some of the 33-man squads to diseased pitches. Then there were the matches themselves, good for some, less so for others and as the dust settles the time for posturing is at an end; even Eddie Jones’ verbal broadsides have petered out.

Irish eyes will be firmly focused on the opening match of the tournament between France and the All Blacks before switching attention to more direct opponents as Ireland’s pool buddies South Africa and Scotland clash in Marseille on Sunday.

The lopsided draw completed three years ahead of the tournament means that those in Pools A and B will have to play three of the top five teams in the world rankings just to make the semi-final. In previous years, that sort of schedule would have guaranteed an outright victory in a World Cup.

READ MORE

The other side of the draw houses teams whose form has dropped off a cliff in the last 12 months. Australia, Wales and England have endured some disappointing and frustrating times during that period.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has refused to dwell on the fixture schedule and instead concentrated on matters within his control. It sends a subtle message to the players. If you claim to be the best, then the only proving ground that counts is on the pitch, and to win a World Cup requires belief, talent, resilience, good fortune and the aptitude, mental and physical, to beat all comers.

If Ireland are to win the World Cup they will need to get past South Africa and Scotland at the pool stage and beat New Zealand or France at the quarterfinal stage. It’s very tough but then in times past Irish teams have enjoyed a far easier route to the final on paper. In 2011 Wales ambushed us and rewrote the script and in 2015 injuries destroyed our chances prior to the Argentina match.

There is one massive upshot with the pools as they stand and that is the opportunity for a team like Fiji to do something incredibly special at this World Cup. They always win the hearts of supporters because of the way they play the game. The draw has given them every incentive to attack the tournament, especially given the talent in the squad reflected in high profile victories in the build-up games.

It is important to remember that World Cups are not just about the Tier 1 nations, and some changes to the laws have balanced the scales which is not a bad thing. All the teams now have similar playing schedules, where before the Tier 2 nations were required to play with shorter breaks between matches, and the repatriation of players to the Pacific Island nations from New Zealand and Australia has offered a sizeable boost.

Ireland have a more graduated level of difficulty to their opening matches in the tournament in building towards a game against the reigning world champions South Africa in three weeks. Farrell’s side did not have to risk life and limb in terms of frontline players across their three warm-up matches.

That wasn’t the case for others. South Africa against New Zealand was a brutal encounter, France went fully loaded against Australia, England picked a team to beat Fiji but that went awry, while Scotland didn’t want to slip up against Georgia. Those countries needed to get game time for their first-choice collective given the upcoming weekend of fixtures in the World Cup.

Farrell has a great deal of trust in his players and will back each of them to play their part. To me that has been one of the impressive qualities that Ireland’s head coach has been able to develop within this squad; everyone feels that their contribution is valued regardless of how big or small

In contrast Ireland focused on one key match at home in the Aviva Stadium against England and used the other games to finalise the travelling party for France and share the game load across the wider squad. It’s an approach that made sense and I’d expect a similarly prudent attitude across their opening two matches.

There are four halves of rugby to be played before they take on South Africa, and I feel that is an opportunity for combinations to get important minutes together without the risk of overloading players too early.

For example, Sexton may start the opening fixture against Romania with Jamison Gibson-Park, and perhaps come from the bench to finish the match with his halfback partner against Tonga, once the combustive electricity has gone from the opening exchanges of that game.

Can Ireland triumph at the Rugby World Cup?

Listen | 28:35

Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong may do the initial heavy lifting in the Romania game this weekend while it will be interesting to see who is chosen to partner Garry Ringrose in the Irish midfield. My gut feeling tells me that it will be a strong starting line-up, followed by an early use of the bench once the result is secure.

Farrell has a great deal of trust in his players and will back each of them to play their part. To me that has been one of the impressive qualities that Ireland’s head coach has been able to develop within this squad; everyone feels that their contribution is valued regardless of how big or small.

This type of approach gets the best from everyone, and while the Irish game is built on pace and accuracy, a key fundamental element is work-rate and that is down to the individual. The Irish players’ ethic in this regard on and off the ball has been incredible for as long as I can remember under Farrell.

You cannot make players do it as England head coach Steve Borthwick is in the throes of finding out. However, when you create an environment where players buy-in of their own accord. Paul O’Connell often talked about zero talent moments, who would be the first up off the ground or win the shoulder at a key ruck. It isn’t a skill thing; it is an attitude.

Joe Schmidt, when Leinster and Irish coach, pushed players to set earlier, to be aligned in attack before the defence was ready. Ireland have been cautious with their plays over the last eight months, opting to reuse older plays rather than revealing anything new during the Six Nations and World Cup warm-up matches. This principle of work-rate has never waned and has been enough to keep Ireland’s nose in front so far this year.

So, if Ireland have been holding back, even just a little, then they may not dwell unduly on what happens on Friday at the Stade de France or Sunday in Marseille and instead focus on themselves. It has served them admirably in the last 18 months and should suffice to see them through the pool stage.