Mick Galwey: It is now or never for this Ireland team

RugbyBy Sunday World
Centre of attention: Keith Earls
Centre of attention: Keith Earls

Here it is, the rugby match we've been waiting for since December 2012. That's when the draw for this Rugby World Cup was made and since then we've known in our hearts that this is the match we simply have to win.

Look, if you are going to win the World Cup, and that's the real ambition of this group of players, you will have to beat the All Blacks at some point. But I say leave it until later in the tournament to try. Let's win this match and take what is undoubtedly the easier route through the knockout phase. Easier in relative terms, of course, because this is the World Cup, the biggest competition in the sport.

But still, Ireland's players know the prize they are playing for in Cardiff this afternoon.

First, though, I must address the team selection and the huge call by Irish coach Joe Schmidt to drop Iain Henderson to the bench. Schmidt has the faith and confidence in himself and his coaching strategy to make the call, but boy, is he going to get stick in the media and from rugby supporters if this rebounds on him. It's the sort of gutsy call that makes a coach look a genius when it works and a fool when it doesn't.

The Ulster man has been my Irish player of the tournament so far, so why is he not starting?

For three reasons, I think. Firstly, the pack Joe Schmidt has chosen is the one that has beaten the French on the last two occasions we played them. This eight have the measure of the eight in Blue and they will run out on the Millennium Stadium pitch to show the French that they still have their number.
Secondly, Devin Toner is one awkward customer to play against in the lineout. At 6ft 11ins, he dominates that set-piece whether Ireland are throwing in or the opposition have the call. Schmidt will be hoping Toner can mess up enough French lineouts to get them jittery. And that's what we need today, don't let the French settle into the game, get them doubting themselves and a few pilfered lineouts is as good a way as any to get them thinking.

The last reason concerns Henderson himself. He's far too good to be labelled an impact player, but when he gets on today, as he surely will at about the 55th minute, he will make an impact. As the game opens up at that point, he will have running room to bring his superb ball-carrying skills. He'll also be hungry to knock back a few Frenchmen in the tackle, Mathieu Bastareaud would do for a start.

And that's the other quality Henderson will bring when he comes on: he is already a big favourite of the Irish crowd and they will rise to his presence and lift the team as the game goes down to the wire.

That's something else Schmidt has gained in choosing to omit Henderson from the start - the five players wearing the green shirts numbered four to eight will come out ready to play for their lives. They know Henderson can play each of those positions and if any of them are off their game, there will be a change made a lot sooner than the 55th minute.

The other selection call that intrigues me is leaving Simon Zebo out of the match-day 23 completely. He has had a fine World Cup and offers, if not the X-Factor, then the Z-Factor, a bit of skill or daring that might well be needed to turn this match our way. Luke Fitzgerald has got in ahead of Zebo among the replacements because he can cover more positions in the back-line. But I'd love to have had Zebo at least on call.

Jared Payne's misfortune has opened the selection door for Keith Earls who has been flying through this World Cup. He is probably more of a winger now, but he'll do a job in the centre.

Dave Kearney has always been picked by Schmidt when available and the winger clearly fits in snugly to the coach's game plan.

Can we win this? Yes, it is going to be close, we need to get the basics right, in the set-pieces, in our defensive organisation. Johnny Sexton has to kick his points when given the chance and we are going to need one of the backs to come up with a bit of magic in open play to force a try.

There are probably a few Irish back moves that haven't been unveiled yet in this World Cup. Given the opportunity they will be produced today, hopefully to bamboozle the French.

Is there anything worrying me as I head for Cardiff this afternoon? Yes most definitely, for it is something over which no Irish rugby player, coach or supporter has any control.

It is that the French, during every World Cup so far, have produced one all-singing, all-dancing dazzling display of running, creative rugby that is magnificent to watch and impossible to beat on the scoreboard. The fear is this might be the day that France decide to play the way their coach, Philippe Saint-André used to in his time as one of the great and glorious wingers of world rugby.

We have to hope that the French will not go down that road today - otherwise our dream of going deep into this World Cup will hit the rocks.

If they do oblige us by keeping the panache for another day, then Ireland have the power and the belief to win this match they have been building towards for those three long years.

The clock is ticking too on some of our players. We know that this is it for the likes of Paul O'Connell and Rory Best in terms of playing at the World Cup. But there are others, many aged in their late 20s, for whom Japan 2019 is a long way away.

The opening that presents itself this afternoon may not be there again for Ireland for a long time to come. It's time for this Irish rugby team to make a massive statement on the world stage.

Everything is in place for them and the Millennium Stadium will be awash with the green of the supporters who have been such a hit at this World Cup. For France, this will feel like playing Ireland in Dublin.

Today is the day for this Irish team to go out and win. I say they will do it.