Northern hemisphere champions Ireland will look to transfer their Six Nations-winning form onto the World Cup stage when they take on Canada in their opening Pool D match on Saturday.
Coach Joe Schmidt inherited the backbone of the Irish side from predecessor Declan Kidney and has honed an outfit missing the now-retired iconic captain Brian O’Driscoll into one capable of matching the best in the game.
Schmidt has pulled no punches in team selection by choosing the strongest possible side, bar centre Robbie Henshaw – a late injury – to face the Canadians at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
In a pool also including France, Italy and Romania, it was a statement by the Kiwi coach that Ireland mean business.
“We have a degree of confidence around our setpiece. Our scrum and lineout have been operating well and those are areas that are really good access points for us in the game and ways to deny Canada access,” Schmidt said, warning however that there was no talk of actually winning the World Cup.
“It’s a moot point when we’ve got a game (ahead of us) and for us at any stage we’d always have a fear that we’d trip over the step in front of us if we were looking too far ahead.”
So no loss of focus other than on the immediate, the coach also putting little stock in defeats in the team’s last two warm-up results.
“Our defence hasn’t been as good as it needs to be as yet,” he acknowledged.
“We conceded four tries across five games in the Six Nations, and in the Six Nations before that we conceded four tries and scored 16.
“It hasn’t suddenly turned bad, I think the systems are good.
“When the season first starts, usually players get to play in the Pro 12, then into European and then into Test matches. Going straight into Test matches playing good players is more difficult.”
Schmidt warned that Canada, like Ireland an ever-present in every World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1987, posed a danger through their free-running, often sevens-trained backs and a solid forward power base centred around his former Clermont charge and Canada captain Jamie Cudmore.
“Their ability to turn defence into attack, their ability to defend for long periods and attack out of them,” he said of the Canadian threat.
“We just know we’re going to have to work hard for the points we get.”
Schmidt also warned that it was no use being creative without an end.
“Creating chances doesn’t win games, you’ve got to convert enough of them to get enough scores on the board to apply scoreboard pressure and get that differential on the scoreboard that allows you to take that ‘W’ away at the end of the day,” he said.
Canada are coached by Kieran Crowley, another Kiwi and the only one of the 20 coaches present at the World Cup to actually have won the tournament, with the All Blacks back in 1987.
Crowley insisted his team were not there to make up the numbers.
“We have gone full strength and selected a side that we feel has the best opportunity of winning the game,” he said, with Cudmore skippering the side in the absence of injured Tyler Ardron.
“We looked at the opposition and at what they will bring and we looked at what we can bring too. Then, we picked accordingly.”
Rob Kearney; David Kearney, Jared Payne, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony; Paul O’Connell (capt), Iain Henderson; Mike Ross, Rory Best, Jack McGrath
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Nathan White, Donnacha Ryan, Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Simon Zebo
Matt Evans; Jeff Hassler, Ciaran Hearn, Nick Blevins, DTH Van Der Merwe; Nathan Hirayama, Gordon McRorie; Aaron Carpenter, John Moonlight, Kyle Gilmour; Jamie Cudmore (capt), Brett Beukeboom; Doug Wooldridge, Ray Barkwill, Hubery Buydens.
Replacements: Benoit Piffero, Djustics Sears-Duru, Andrew Tiedemann, Jebb Sinclair, Richard Thorpe, Phil Mack, Liam Underwood, Conor Trainor