Tuesday 6 December 2016

Tony Ward: Shadow players ready to see light

Schmidt will be hoping O'Mahony's troops can step up before rematch

Published 12/11/2016 | 02:30

Garry Ringrose is one of Ireland’s young guns set to make a step up today. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose is one of Ireland’s young guns set to make a step up today. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Put yourself in Joe Schmidt's shoes. You've just achieved the greatest 'friendly' result in the history of Irish rugby and you're facing the same world champion opposition in seven days' time. In between, as in later today at the Aviva, you're taking on the ever-developing Canadians. Do you opt for a large dollop of continuity or do you field a shadow 15 - those players on the fringe and not involved in the starting line-up in Chicago?

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As ever, the solution lies somewhere in between, although on this occasion Schmidt has opted for a shake-up and that is as it should be while showing no disrespect for the quality of opposition. Beating New Zealand last Saturday in Chicago will go down as probably the most memorable match and victory in the history of Irish rugby short of winning the World Cup.

For the record, we have played the Canadians seven times, winning six and drawing one. I was in Toronto in 2000 when having hammered the US Eagles (83-3) in Manchester, New Hampshire the previous week, we were blessed to get out of Markham with a draw (27-27).

And while on the topic of the greatest Irish win, certainly of the professional era to date, it remains for me the victory over Australia at the 2011 World Cup in Auckland.

Extreme

Given its context and everything surrounding that particular match, it surpassed the 2009 Grand Slam in Cardiff.

That said, beating New Zealand after 111 years and 28 previous attempts was special in the extreme and nobody but nobody needs to convince this observer of that. Did I see last week coming - no. But that our tactically-astute coach devised a way to get it done is no surprise.

New Zealand had an area of obvious vulnerability and he exploited it to the full. By the time Steve Hansen shored up the lineout void, the groundwork for an extraordinary victory had been laid by way of that 17-point lead at the break.

We had been at similar dizzy heights before, not least in 2013, but crumbled under the intense heat in the final phase. But not this time and it is that mental lesson ingrained from the Ryan Crotty try which powered the physical response in the final straight and made for the biggest plus of all.

A huge psychological step was taken but one that was emotionally draining - hence the importance of this shadow selection now. It makes for an opportunity to wrap the Chicago front-liners in cotton wool with the exception of Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Sean Cronin, Donnacha Ryan and Joey Carbery.

The starting XV includes three new caps in Garry Ringrose, Billy Holland and Jack O'Donoghue with Holland becoming the latest in a long line of fathers and sons to represent Ireland at the highest level. Former Munster team manager (and dad) Jerry was capped three times in the eighties while playing for Wanderers in his time in Dublin.

Holland and Ryan have been outstanding for Munster thus far this season and Ryan will be on standby in case of emergency off the bench.

For five more - hooker James Tracy, tighthead John Ryan, flanker Dan Leavy, scrum-half Luke McGrath and winger Niyi Adeolokun - they will be chomping at the bit for game time and that ground-breaking first cap.

Obviously depending on how the match goes that would represent nine new caps including Carbery from last week's dramatic game.

The Irish head coach does not work on the principle of 'what ain't broke don't need fixing' but instead treats every game and every opposition on its merits. On the assumption at least two of the three New Zealand locks missing in Chicago return this day week for what is certain to be a get-even match in Dublin, the biggest decision facing the main man and his fellow selectors will be the make up of the back-row. If Iain Henderson is fit he too will be in the equation but having missed involvement again today, I doubt the robust Ulster man will be ready in time.

Even if Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano or Sam Whitelock return, I will be surprised if the plan of action deviates that much from Chicago. The big call is who will replace the unfortunate Jordi Murphy? Josh van der Flier seems the most obvious choice given his form plus impact when coming on for Murphy so early in the Soldier Field but for Peter O'Mahony and Seán O'Brien opportunity knocks.

So too for the rookie Jack O'Donoghue in between. O'Mahony and O'Brien will be doing all they can to help each other and by extension the team beat Canada later today but equally I suspect that one or other will challenge Van der Flier for the Murphy role against the Kiwis second time round.

Abundance

The case for Van der Flier (not to mention Dan Leavy) as a more mobile breakaway is obvious. On the back of how the chosen flankers(O'Brien and O'Mahony) go today, it will then be a call of one from three including Van der Flier depending on the intended Schmidt plot for back-to-back victories.

Either way it's some abundance of back-row talent from which to choose and compete with the best in the world.

Is there a danger of losing today? Of course there is, every bit as much as there was of us winning at the Soldier Field seven days ago. And that's the challenge for a relatively young and inexperienced match-day squad.

Mark Anscombe knows Irish rugby intimately from his time at Ulster.

He has in No 8 Aaron Carpenter and, most particularly, DTH van der Merwe two top-quality players by any standard.

But for so many fringe and returning Irish players opportunity knocks. It's seldom if ever a shadow Ireland side gets the chance to play before a full house on home soil. Today represents that opportunity. What the head coach wants more than anything is a bout of insomnia over the coming nights whereby picking the best 23 for the big rematch is a nightmare.

Take O'Mahony and Ireland to deliver the appropriate performance.

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