Sunday 18 November 2018

Breaking down Joe Schmidt's tough calls that will define November

Relative health of squad means some big players are facing selection disappointment

Ready for battle: Sean O’Brien taking instruction from Joe Schmidt at training. Photo: Sportsfile
Ready for battle: Sean O’Brien taking instruction from Joe Schmidt at training. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Coaches dream of having the kind of array of options that present themselves to Joe Schmidt this month, but it is one thing having a strong panel to choose from and another picking the right team and keeping those who don't make the cut happy.

Ultimately, 19 of the squad named by the coach for this November series will miss out on selection for Saturday's match against Argentina and, if Conor Murray comes back into contention, that figure rises to 20 next weekend.

Rob Kearney will almost certainly miss this week's game, while Dan Leavy, Sammy Arnold and John Ryan's late return from provincial action in South Africa appears to rule them out of contention.

The selection has been predetermined to an extent by the travel involved in last week's fixtures; transatlantic and cross-hemisphere flights make life that little bit more complication from a logistical point of view.

It also means yesterday's training session was the first time all of the squad members were on the pitch at the same time at Carton House and you can be sure it was a well-contested session as players jockey for position. Schmidt names his team tomorrow and he has plenty of options to consider.

Back-three

Jordan Larmour is the name on everybody's lips after his hat-trick in Chicago and there is a general assumption that the 21-year-old will continue in the No 15 shirt in Kearney's absence.

But that may not be as straightforward as first thought, with Andrew Conway also in the frame for selection. Both Conway and Will Addison were put forward for media duties yesterday which indicates they will have some involvement this week.

With Keith Earls set to return to the starting XV, Conway could start on the right wing as he did in the second Test in Melbourne with Larmour at full-back or Jacob Stockdale may be on the wing with Conway in the No 15 shirt. Addison's capacity to cover a range of positions could see him take the No 23 jersey.

Midfield

One of the most fascinating areas of this window is seeing how Schmidt juggles his midfield resources with Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki all fit and firing.

Stuart McCloskey is in camp, but may have to wait until the USA game; with the Leinster pair and the Connacht powerhouse well ahead in the pecking order.

After remaining home last week, Henshaw is set to come into the team with Schmidt likely to pair him with his club colleague Ringrose against the free-running Pumas. Aki has been consistently selected since he qualified and has never let the coach down. This battle will run and run.

Half-back

Johnny Sexton is set to start at out-half and, with Conor Murray out, it looks like Kieran Marmion will play alongside him.

The 26-year-old got 48 minutes under his belt for Connacht last weekend in preparation and, while Luke McGrath and John Cooney did well in the United States, Marmion's record in deputising for Murray should earn him the first shot with McGrath on the bench.

Front-row

This looks pretty straightforward, with Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong coming in to start.

The only intrigue is likely to be around the replacements where competition is fierce. Dave Kilcoyne is pushing Jack McGrath hard, Seán Cronin appeared to edge Niall Scannell last week and Andrew Porter is under pressure from Finlay Bealham.

Second-row

Perhaps the most competitive department in the squad given the resources available and Schmidt will have to leave some high-quality operators out of his team.

He took James Ryan to Chicago, but didn't play him while Devin Toner was named on the bench.

The starters, Tadhg Beirne and Quinn Roux, performed well, while Iain Henderson was given the weekend off back home.

Ryan and Henderson were the preferred choice in last year's Six Nations and are favourites to start this weekend, but Toner and Beirne are both in excellent form. Schmidt has rotated this position more than most and could have a trick up his sleeve in the next 10 days.

Back-row

The decision to leave Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander at home last week suggests they will start, with Leavy's likely absence meaning Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy and last week's captain Rhys Ruddock would duke it out for the remaining spot on the bench.

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