Tony Ward: Chicago tickets booked but derby trials still a factor for Schmidt
A squad of 34 for the upcoming Autumn Internationals, and I guess specifically the Chicago leg of the All Blacks games, was declared by Joe Schmidt on Wednesday. It is built largely upon expected lines and yet crucially the door is still open following the latest series of interprovincial games, last night in Belfast and later today at the RDS.
That is as it should be with individual form monitored quite literally on a weekly basis. I emphasise the derby aspect for obvious reasons. The players involved know the stakes given the trial element to competing against their immediate opposites in terms of a place amongst Joe's chosen few.
And quite apart from chasing every Pro12 point they can muster, players know that when facing any one of the other three provinces the individual stakes are way above the ordinary. It is the undeclared trial aspect to Ireland's professional season. When the chosen elite are away on Test duty, be it November internationals or post-Christmas Six Nations, opportunities open up for those who remain.
In general, I like the squad named by the main man. It acknowledges form, potential and, yes in one or two cases, experience over form.
Jack McGrath and Cian Healy are the form looseheads and I expect will be named in that order for the Soldier Field Test with Rory Best the captain ahead of Sean Cronin and a big call to be made given John Ryan's outstanding breakthrough for Munster when measured against Tadhg Furlong's similar elevation ahead of Mike Ross at Leinster.
I suspect the Leinster man may shade it with Finlay Bealham the utility front-rower but expect Greg Feek to have the biggest input here and with good reason. Ryan has been a revelation thus far for Munster.
Mention too of James Tracy in a similar vein to Ryan. Having to contend with Cronin and Richardt Strauss for a place in the provincial match-day squad is a job in itself so making the leap now ahead of every other hooker bar Best is some achievement. It is also a statement as to how highly Feek and Simon Easterby rate the former Newbridge schoolboy.
In the second-row Devin Toner will be an automatic, while, if fit, although still operating well below top gear, Iain Henderson seems his most likely partner.
Both Donnacha Ryan and Billy Holland are chosen on sheer hard graft. Ryan was sure to be involved and rightly so but for Holland it is a new experience at this level in this his 32nd year. Even when he is not wearing the captain's armband for Munster he is still the one calling so many shots. He is without doubt a chip off Paul O'Connell in that key regard. On the assumption Henderson makes the starting XV, then Ultan Dillane will offer the best impact off the bench.
The back-row make-up is a huge conundrum. Much of course will depend on the game plan for Chicago. Josh van der Flier could be chosen to scavenge with Sam Cane at the breakdown. Beyond that, five into three won't go.
If Peter O'Mahony is deemed fit for an hour even at this level then it could be a straight call between the Munster man and Sean O'Brien returning too after such a long lay-off. Either way, I would have Jamie Heaslip at eight with CJ Stander on one side whether wearing six or seven.
If it is O'Mahony or the Tullow Tank ahead of (the very much in-form) Van der Flier then a more physical fringe-related game will represent the most logical way to go. Certainly the Pumas, when they challenged New Zealand in the opening 40 in the Championship, chose the latter as the most productive route to go. Jordi Murphy isn't exactly a slouch in any close in war of attrition either.
At half-back, it will be Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton to start with the ever-improving Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson in reserve. I would have no issue whatsoever with either Marmion or Jackson filling the pivotal positions at some stage against the best in the world.
Luke McGrath too is developing nicely at Leinster with increasing game time but the real springer this season to date has been Joey Carbery. He will not be named in the 23 to face New Zealand although if looking for a genuine game-breaker when the chips are down mid-match this emerging talent has it all.
Schmidt is only too well aware of the Carbery potential. The trick is in how to handle it. Just having him in the original 34 is a statement in itself but does he get wrapped in cotton wool until he has more Pro12 and European games under his belt or should he be thrown in for the Canadian game second up?
As a firm believer in the principle that 'good enough is old enough' I would seriously consider a starting position to face the Canucks. The compromise might be Jackson to start with Carbery then making his Test debut off the bench.
We don't want to lose the run of ourselves but this is potentially the most exciting young talent to emerge since Brian O'Driscoll began making waves at U-20 for Leinster.
Of course he is not the finished article, how could he be? But if ever the bits and pieces were in place and ready for fine-tuning then in Carbery Schmidt has a talent way above the ordinary ... and he knows it. Mention of O'Driscoll and I suspect a third former Blackrock College man is causing the head coach some tossing and turning in his sleep. Garry Ringrose is now beginning to stake his right to a place at the top table.
It's early days yet in the Robbie Henshaw/Ringrose marriage but it's looking mighty tasty. I suspect the thinking for Chicago will be Jared Payne alongside Henshaw in midfield with Rob Kearney or Simon Zebo in the last line. Kearney is still not firing remotely close to his best and he knows it but he is a very real leader in this set-up. Don't rule out a Kearney/Andrew Trimble/Zebo back three for the first Autumn Test with Craig Gilroy in reserve.
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Next Saturday the third Interdisciplinary Ethics in Sport Conference will take place. The venue is The Long Room Hub, Trinity College kicking off at 10.0am with a welcome from Dr John Scally of the Department of Religion and Theology.
The full itinerary is as follows:
10.05 Ethical Echoes: Sport and History in Ireland - Paul Rouse, School of History, UCD and author.
10.45 The Trials and Tribulations of a Football Fan: Tom Dunne, musician and broadcaster.
11.15 Making MMA safe?
Professor Daniel G Healy, consultant neurologist, Beaumont & RCSI
11.45 Hurler on the Ditch: Donal Ryan, award-winning author
12.15 Something inside so strong:
Ronan McGarrity, former Mayo footballer.
2.00 Healthy and ethical living:
Paula Mee, nutritionist, author and broadcaster.
2.30 Towards ethical coaching:
Derek McGrath, Waterford hurling manager.
3.15 Interview with GAA legend Seán Boylan.
Admission is free. For further information and registration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org