Sunday 22 September 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Challenge for mainstays is to hold onto starting spot'

Coach hopes pressure from within will drive performances against Pumas and All Blacks

Devin Toner misses out on a starting role but is sure to make an impact from the bench, while Rory Best will be keen to take his chance to hold onto the No 2 jersey. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Devin Toner misses out on a starting role but is sure to make an impact from the bench, while Rory Best will be keen to take his chance to hold onto the No 2 jersey. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Throw a fit Conor Murray, Rob Kearney and Garry Ringrose into the number 9, 15 and 13 jerseys and the starting XV for tomorrow's Test looks very close to the team Joe Schmidt would have in mind for a World Cup quarter-final if it were being played this week.

The issue for the men in possession of the jerseys is that there are 315 days to go until next year's tournament and the second string are ravenous for opportunity.

Knowing that Kearney is expected to be fit next week, the talk is that the competition for his number 15 shirt was fierce this week with Will Addison and Andrew Conway pushing hard for selection until Schmidt ultimately stuck with his boy wonder Jordan Larmour who scored the three tries, while creating a fourth, last week against Italy.

No matter how established Kearney feels in the set-up, the experienced full-back will find this weekend's experience a little uncomfortable as Larmour makes his case for inclusion.

Schmidt is a coach who prizes the players who have been there and done it for him before, but yesterday he warned his mainstays that any signs of complacency will result in them watching the meeting with the All Blacks from the stands.

Rarely, if ever, does the coach get to choose from so many of his centrally contracted players and barring a raft of injuries tomorrow, he'll be in an even better position next week - even if Murray isn't rushed back.

Peter O'Mahony and Seán O'Brien have had a shot across the bows already when they were left out of the squad for Chicago in 2016. Two years on, they are in no doubt of the competition for their positions as they take their places in the back-row.

O'Mahony is a vice-captain and in the form of his life, but if his standards slip then Rhys Ruddock and Tadhg Beirne are ready to swoop. O'Brien is a proven world-class player and Lion, but he will eye Dan Leavy's presence on the bench with suspicion as Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy watch from the stands.

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In the second-row, Schmidt has returned to what is looking increasingly like his first-choice partnership of Iain Henderson and James Ryan.

But he does so with the comfort of knowing that Devin Toner, Beirne and even Quinn Roux are in excellent form. In yesterday's press conference, Schmidt stated that he wanted to see Henderson "put his hand up", while he said he was managing Beirne's minutes and was conscious that Toner has played plenty of rugby.

In the front-row, Rory Best needs a big game as he packs down with the familiar pair of Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong.

Watching from afar last June, the skipper saw Niall Scannell and Rob Herring in particular move up on his outside as potential starters. Seán Cronin has gotten himself back into the good books now and, at 36, Best knows a drop in standards could cost him.

Out in the backs, Ringrose's absence gives Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw a shot at squeezing him out. Schmidt admitted yesterday that he does not know how he would handle the decision between all three if they presented fit and firing.

And while he is still a long way from dislodging Murray from the No 9 shirt, Kieran Marmion has a chance to wrap up the back-up slot with less than a year to go. He goes into this game knowing that Luke McGrath and John Cooney are desperate to unseat him.

These matches matter most because they come against world-class southern hemisphere opposition who pose Ireland problems they are not used to.

Sure, New Zealand represent a significant step up on Argentina but they will test the likes of Larmour and Marmion in ways they're not used to.

Schmidt has a good record against the Rugby Championship teams, holding the upper hand on South Africa, Australia and the Pumas; while he is of course the only Ireland coach to beat the All Blacks.

Displays

While the Six Nations is the bread-and-butter tournament, these windows offer him a chance to road-test his players for next year's World Cup - benchmarking their displays against some of the best athletes in the game.

His All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen has gone on record with his preferred hierarchy, stating for example that Sam Cane is his preferred No 7, with Ardie Savea and Matt Todd behind him in the pecking order.

Schmidt has never gone down that route, but it is easy to tell from the central contracts who he wants to build his team around.

But the message from the coach yesterday was that the men in possession of the jersey must perform to keep hold of it.

No doubt they heard it loud and clear.

Compared to England's Eddie Jones who is still scratching around trying to find his best team, Schmidt is in a strong position and no one knows that more than his big names.

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