Although admitting that it will be a big ask, Ireland defence coach Graham Steadman is backing a much-changed Irish side to keep Scotland tryless on Saturday and see out a morale-boosting Murrayfield win.
Speaking at a press conference in the team hotel today, Steadman said: “I think the fact that the players have now been together – in addition to the summer tour – for three or three-and-a-half weeks, the combinations and the understanding is there.
“There’s several interesting combinations we’ve got (for the Scottish game). In the back three – Geordan Murphy, Brian Carney and Tommy Bowe – it’ll be interesting to see how they bring the ball back against counter attacks.
“Let’s not forget that Scotland are strong in that department. They caused up a few problems in the Six Nations in broken-field situations. We’ve highlighted that and tightened up on that.
“Then there’s the combination of Stephen Ferris, (Jamie) Heaslip and Besty (Neil Best) in the back row. Sure there’s going to be little misunderstandings but as Brian (O’Driscoll) highlighted this morning, it’s so important that everyone communicates and that the messages are sent inside out in defence.
“If we get that right, I dare say we’ll come out with a similar result as we had in the Six Nations and I’d like to think we can keep these guys in the navy blue shirts tryless,” he added.
“I know it’s going to be a big ask – we’ve got new combinations, one or two new structures in the defensive system – but overall I can’t see there being a problem.”
Steadman is looking forward to see how Ireland’s back-up players perform in Edinburgh, particularly out-half Paddy Wallace whose development has greatly impressed the former Great Britain rugby league international.
“The experience of that summer tour (to Argentina) had been invaluable for the likes of Paddy Wallace for example. He’s grown another foot in stature,” Steadman admitted.
“With a view to stepping back into this camp in preparation for the World Cup, I’ve seen a different personality in his approach to his work. He’s been more comfortable and stepped forward.
“He’s not been in the shadow of what Rog (Ronan O’Gara) has probably had over him over the past two years that I’ve been on board. There is depth in this squad – any one player can stake a claim with a top performance.
“There’s a lot of football to be played between now and the World Cup and I think there’s going to be a few twists and turns between now and our first match at the tournament.”
When asked about the squad’s current skill levels, Ireland skills coach Brian McLaughlin was also quick to praise the fringe players who have worked themselves into contention for a place in the World Cup travelling party.
“I think our skill levels have improved dramatically over the last few years,” McLaughlin insisted.
“I think, as we’ve said before, we’re very grateful for the work that’s been done in the provinces all the time. Obviously the work we’re doing in camp – all of the coaches together – has proved very effective and very worthwhile.
“I think the gap (between the first and second string players) has narrowed dramatically, certainly the tour to Argentina from that point of view gave us an opportunity to work with guys and they realised what’s expected of them.
“They’ve come back into camp this summer and having the added bonus of having the top 15 players there to show them the top level – the level they’ve got to aspire to – has really brought them on another step.”
The former RBAI school master agreed that the breakdown battle will be key in deciding the winners of Saturday’s game at Murrayfield.
“You’re always aware against Scotland that they’re going to be physical, aggressive and good at the breakdown.
“It’s the first match of the season but we’ve got to be making sure we’re in there and being competitive and I think the key word is accuracy – we’ve got to have our accuracy right at the breakdown. If we don’t have that, then the ball we have is slowed up and we won’t be able to play the way we want to play.
“We’ve been impressing on the guys how important that area will be this weekend,” he said.
How quick a team can judge and react to how a match referee is interpreting the breakdown will be a key element to this World Cup according to McLaughlin.
“I think basically you have to play the breakdown by playing the referee – you’ve got to know where the referee’s strengths and weaknesses are in that area.
“Come the World Cup it might be slightly different in that there will be referees’ meetings and they will be talking about how they want to be refereeing that area.
“It’s up to us to make sure we’re able to react on our feet during the game to the referee and the way he’s playing that area, which is very, very important.”