Back-row hopefuls get chance to impress Joe Schmidt at the Aviva
Leinster v Munster clash a perfect audition for November internationals
It is entirely conceivable that when Joe Schmidt names his squad for the November internationals, all of the back-rows will be drawn from Leinster and Munster.
The Ireland coach always keeps a close eye on the interprovincial encounters to inform his selection and it would be no surprise if he and his assistants’ eyes are drawn to the men wearing No’s 6, 7 and 8 at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Jamie Heaslip’s back problems open up a rare vacancy for the games against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina.
Apart from a select few games when he was rested, the Leinster No 8 has been an ever-present under Schmidt when fit and his absence forces the New Zealander into a rethink.
He has an all-Lions back-row available to him, but Schmidt has not been shy in leaving the big beasts out.
While Peter O’Mahony, Seán O’Brien and CJ Stander were away last summer, Rhys Ruddock was captaining his country in impressive style as part of a back-row that featured Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan and Dan Leavy at various stages.
Leavy is unlikely to be available, but Jordi Murphy has returned to full fitness and is working his way back to form.
At Munster, Tommy O’Donnell and Jack O’Donoghue will be hoping to force their way back into the reckoning with a big showing.
The teams will be named tomorrow at midday and the make-up and performance of the back-rows will have a big say in a game that is always about the gain-line.
The sub-plot of international implications will rest with Schmidt who will watch the game live and then have it broken down into packages where he will assess each individual display forensically.
Heaslip’s injury is likely to see CJ Stander redeployed to No 8, meaning there is an opening for O’Mahony to return to the No 6 shirt he occupied when Schmidt was faced into a late rejig of his team before the win over England in the Six Nations.
O’Mahony had a frustrating international season up until that point, but his man of the match performance was a reminder of how much the Munster skipper brings to the party, however, and he kicked on to play a key role on the Lions tour.
His leadership credentials are unquestioned, but he faces competition from Ruddock who led Ireland in Heaslip and Rory Best’s absence and earned good reports in doing so.
The Leinster flanker’s power has proven invaluable in South African battles before and he is enjoying an injury-free run. He will hope to use Saturday’s game as a springboard to show his wares and if selected could do worse than man-marking Stander.
The third option for Schmidt is to deploy O’Brien on the blindside of the scrum in order to inject the youthful enthusiasm and work-rate of Van der Flier at No 7.
O’Brien reinforced his status as a world-class back-row in June.
He can play across the back-row, as can Murphy who started ahead of O’Brien and Van der Flier in Chicago and scored the opening try of that famous win only to rupture his cruciate ligament minutes later. In his absence, Leavy emerged as another viable Leinster starter and international back-row, while Van der Flier continued his impressive development.
With five turnovers in his four games to date, the Wicklow native looks to be improving his breakdown work and that will have been noted by the powers that be.
If selected on Saturday, Van der Flier is likely to be opposite O’Donnell who has been a consistent high performer for Munster who has struggled to convert his provincial appearances into international caps and has found himself outside the set-up since he missed the South African tour in 2016.
He has a lot of ground to make up and the queue in front of him is a lengthy one, but a big performance in this company can help him catch the eye once again.
However, he starts the game behind his Leinster rivals – which should fuel his fire all the more.
This one looks straightforward enough, with Stander ready to step into Heaslip’s shoes, but Jack Conan will have something to say about that as he looks to build on his excellent finish to last season.
The Bray native took the opportunity to thrive brilliantly at the end of last season and was one of Leinster’s best performers.
He went on to start all three of Ireland’s summer tour games and he has started this campaign well.
O’Brien started at No 8 last week, while Schmidt has turned to Murphy in Heaslip’s absence before, but it appears to be a straight shoot-out between Stander and Conan.
At present, Stander looks nailed on to win out but it would be no surprise to see Schmidt rotate for the Fiji game to allow Conan build more experience.
The South African has been a consistently high performer since his Ireland debut, offering relentless carrying and refusing to take a backwards step.
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