Tuesday 6 December 2016

Last week in Chicago was about history, this is all about the future

Aviva attendance to get sneak preview of 2019 as Schmidt looks for new blood against Canada

Published 12/11/2016 | 02:30

This time, Schmidt has a full four-year cycle to prepare for the assault on the Webb Ellis Cup and with six games against Rugby Championship teams the current schedule is viewed as a crucial building block in preparation. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
This time, Schmidt has a full four-year cycle to prepare for the assault on the Webb Ellis Cup and with six games against Rugby Championship teams the current schedule is viewed as a crucial building block in preparation. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Presuming Joe Schmidt uses his bench in full this evening and doesn't spring any surprises in the last two games of 2016 against New Zealand and Australia, the Ireland coach will finish the year having handed 18 players their debuts.

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Even before he decided to commit his future until the 2019 World Cup, the head coach had begun the process of widening his squad so that when Japan rolls around Ireland would be better prepared than they were on his first attempt at the tournament.

This time, he has a full four-year cycle to prepare for the assault on the Webb Ellis Cup and with six games against Rugby Championship teams the current schedule is viewed as a crucial building block in preparation.

This evening's game against Canada was always seen as the main opportunity to blood new faces given the calibre of opponents, but circumstances have intervened to pit some young players into the international arena ahead of time. How they've coped will please the coach no end.

Depth

No one saw last week's historic win over New Zealand coming except the squad and management who had a quiet confidence going to Soldier Field.

Winning was one thing, but to do so without Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Keith Earls demonstrated a new depth.

This evening, the pool will deepen further as the long-mapped international careers of Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose and Jack O'Donoghue get under way.

Joey Carbery has emerged as a contender to Paddy Jackson at out-half, James Tracy, John Ryan and Billy Holland add depth to the ranks in the front and second-rows and Niyi Adeolokun and Tiernan O'Halloran will hope to bring their Connacht form into the international arena.

Few, if any, teams could cope with losing five players of the calibre of Paul O'Connell, O'Mahony, O'Brien, Jared Payne and Johnny Sexton in the days leading up to a World Cup quarter-final, but the Ireland coach is determined to be better prepared.

"You cannot win the World Cup with 15 players, you can't win it with 30 players," he said in South Africa last June.

"You need to be at least two-and-a-half deep, hopefully three deep in every position because you're going to lose some players. I don't think that I could ever imagine losing five worse players than we did lose, you know?

"It's probably my biggest ever disappointment in rugby.

"It was pretty hard for the players and the management to bounce back from that, because we probably felt that we were really well-equipped going into the back-half of our pool, after struggling through Italy we then tried to push on and this gives us on opportunity to push on without those players and then hopefully force those players to play a bit of catch-up and that might deepen our resources a little bit."

The schedule of New Zealand, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - following three successive games against South Africa in which the coach rotated his team heavily - helps the coach prepare for the rigours of the intense World Cup agenda and is all part of the learning process.

Ramped

So, all bar one of the starting XV from Soldier Field get to put their feet up at the Aviva Stadium this evening and watch on as a combination of the returning heroes and up-and-comers try to put the heat on them.

For Schmidt, the ideal scenario is that even a team that secured a historic win over New Zealand will not rest easy as the competition for places ramped up.

During the first two years of his time in charge, the first XV largely picked itself but with Tom McCartney, Bundee Aki, Tyler Bleyendaal and Wiehahn Herbst joining the roster next year, the jostling for position should only intensify.

O'Mahony captains the side today knowing he needs a big performance to win back his place in the team. CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip were outstanding last week and he, Seán O'Brien and Josh van der Flier are battling for the one slot vacated by the injured Jordi Murphy next week.

The last time he skippered the side was in the 2013 win over Canada and many of the players from that Toronto clash went on to become important members of the team who won back-to-back Six Nations. This evening could be a similar springboard.

"You're looking at a team tomorrow that will probably be the bedrock of the team for the next foreseeable future," the Munster man said.

"That's probably what we were the last time we toured there. A lot of players have come through, who got their first caps on that tour, that have really secured their places in the current Irish team.

"It's great to see young guys coming through; you're learning from them, you're passing on a few things you've learned from the older fellas who have gone by as well, so it's always healthy and it's great to see the young fellas coming through and guys like Seánie coming back, it gives the squad a great boost."

That boost is laced with the knowledge that competition for places has rarely been higher, exactly what Schmidt is looking for three years out from the World Cup.

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