At last, the phoney war is over and the 2015 Rugby World Cup is upon us. Ireland’s preparations are complete and the real stuff can commence after the necessary, but utterly flat warm-up matches.
Two wins out of four may not sound terribly impressive from an Irish perspective, but the fact they have emerged unscathed on the injury front, bar the unfortunate Tommy O’Donnell, is the most important consideration.
What will concern Irish coach Joe Schmidt is not so much the lack of fluidity in Ireland’s play, which will invariably come with game time, but the fact that some of his star names seem to be struggling for form.
Take Tommy Bowe, for example. The Ulster winger looked ponderous in the final warm-up game at Twickenham, uncharacteristically missing tackles. As Bowe is considered a virtual certainty for Schmidt’s first-choice side (having been ever present under the Kiwi when injury free), his lack of form is as untimely as it is uncharacteristic. One hopes that his game recovers by the time the Irish take the field for their seminal encounter against France on 11 October.
The Irish camp will also be a tad concerned that they haven’t yet scaled the heights of performance that have been the hallmark of Schmidt’s tenure. Granted, it’s still early in their preparation cycle, and realistically the men in green don’t have to peak until the Italy game on 4 October, at the earliest.
Contrast this schedule that of the hosts in Pool A’s 'Group of Death', where England need to be fully locked and loaded by the time they play Wales on 26 September. That said, perfectionist Schmidt will surely have wanted more from the warm-ups than one decent performance against the severely depleted Welsh in Cardiff.
History tells us that Ireland struggle to peak at World Cups. The 2007 tournament is a case in point. Back then, Ireland had a limited warm-up schedule, featuring a Test against Italy, and an attritional game against French club Bayonne.
We all know what happened next. The over-hyped Irish struggled to overcome the minnows of Namibia and Georgia, and subsequently lost both of their vital games against Argentina and France, before exiting at the pool stages.
Several commentators, including former Irish fly-half Tony Ward, described Eddie O’Sullivan’s side as 'undercooked' in that tournament, and Schmidt will be at pains to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
This is a recurring theme for the northern hemisphere nations. World Cups arrive on the back of the European pre-season, whereas their rivals from south of the equator arrive battle hardened from the competitive environments that are Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.
The Irish coaches (particularly strength and conditioning coach, Jason Cowman) must tread the tightrope between ensuring that the team don’t peak too early, and helping them attain sufficient match fitness to emerge from their pool.
In that respect, the warm-up games, although uninspiring, have served Ireland’s coach well in his preparations. Players have been afforded game time, key combinations have been tested, and the medics have been able to report a relatively clean bill of health.
And while Schmidt will have certainly wanted more in terms of performance, the Kiwi’s track record in competitive matches means there is no reason to doubt his side will deliver when it really matters.
Despite an underwhelming warm-up schedule, the real rugby is about to begin, and Ireland remain on track to produce their best-ever World Cup performance. Other teams may have performed better in the preamble, but that is irrelevant now. One swallow doesn’t make a summer.