This weekend will see the final preparation matches ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan at the end of September. One of the most influential matches of the weekend will take place in Dublin, as Ireland and Wales will clash in their second match in two weeks; a match which can have great ramifications for the much debated official World Rankings.
After both Ireland and Wales announced their squads that will compete in Japan, a number of questions and concerns have been raised, particularly surrounding the Irish squad. Many have critised the inclusion of the twice-capped Jean Kleyn ahead of the experienced Devin Toner in the Irish squad to travel to Japan, including Agustín Pichot (Former Argentine international and current vice-chairman of World Rugby), who took to twitter to express his disappointment in the inclusion of the “project player”.
With Kleyn selected to start against Wales, this match will be a crucible for the young South African-born lock, as he underwhelmed in both of his previous outings for the “Boys in Green”. After the slightly unconvincing 29-10 victory over Italy in their first World Cup Warm-up game, Kleyn started in Ireland’s dismal performance against England in Twickenham. In both of those matches, Kleyn barely made an impact during his time on the field, with the Irish set pieces being one of their biggest worry.
As many will place a keen eye on Kleyn’s performance against the former World Number one side on Saturday, the Munster man will have to play one of the games of his life in order to prove that he deserves his spot ahead of the much-loved Toner.
Additionally, the centre pairing in Ireland’s final warm-up match will be under the microscope, as it is still uncertain precisely who will start at 12 and 13 in Japan. Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw will start at inside and outside centre respectively against Wales, with Gary Ringrose being the most likely backup for the midfield on the bench. Chris Farrell and Keith Earls being the other possible centres in the squad, both Aki and Henshaw will be hoping to cement their places in the starting lineup.
Both Ireland and Wales are blessed with depth heading into the World Cup, causing both Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland some serious selection headaches. Rhys Patchell made a big statement in the unfortunate absence of Gareth Anscombe last week in Cardiff, and should be hopeful that he can duplicate that performance in Dublin in order to play his way ahead of Dan Biggar. Other key positions in the Welsh starting line-up that will be under the spotlight this weekend include wing, where Josh Adams will start in the place of Liam Williams, who is on the bench.
Not only will this weekend be key in finalising the first choice players for both teams, the encounter in Dublin could mean that for the third time in as many weeks there could be a new World No. 1 on the official World Rankings. After Ireland triumphed in Cardiff, they moved to second on the rankings, allowing New Zealand to top the table once again, and pushing Wales down to fourth behind England. This weekend, however, Ireland can move to the top of the World Rankings, regardless of New Zealand’s result against Tonga, if they manage to defeat Wales by any margin.
This would see Ireland be World No. 1 at the opening of the World Cup, as there will be no other matches that will affect the rankings before the opening match in Japan.
While Ireland versus Wales will have a major impact on the state of international rugby before the World Cup, the other big match of the weekend could see the Springboks banish their old demons from 2015, as they will face Japan for the first time since their shock defeat in the group stages of the World Cup in 2015.