Sport Rugby

Thursday 22 August 2019

Desert heat rising for Schmidt's fringe stars

Six Ireland hopefuls on North America tour have chance to establish themselves with new regime

Rory Best's Lions promotion has seen Sean Cronin elevated to the Ireland squad
Rory Best's Lions promotion has seen Sean Cronin elevated to the Ireland squad
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IRELAND's players have assembled in the luxurious surrounds of Carton House for a week of temperate training before heading to the white heat of the wild west.

The frontier lands of Texas and Ontario await the 28 players who may have been grumbling yesterday about the cool day and showers, but will be wishing for them next week with the temperature due to reach 35C, with 61pc humidity, when they touch down in Houston on Saturday.

Some of these players will be embarking on their first excursion into the unknown with nothing to lose when they visit Texas next week, others are established characters for whom Tests against USA and Canada are about lending experience, keeping fresh in case the Lions call and fulfilling their contractual obligations.

However, to a cadre of others this is hugely important to their international careers and, while not quite the last chance saloon, this is an opportunity to impress Les Kiss and, more importantly, Joe Schmidt, who is due to arrive for the first Test and spend the second week observing camp.

The hot weather won't be the sole reason these players will be sweating after a long season as Schmidt gets his first chance to concentrate on the task at hand.

Some of the tourists were discarded by the previous regime, others ignored, and there is also the case of Sean Cronin, who Kiss and Schmidt were sending on the Emerging Ireland tour to Georgia until Rory Best got his Lions reprieve.

Now that he has been bumped up, with Ulster's former Ireland U-20 captain Niall Annett moved into the Emerging squad, Cronin has a chance to prove that his fall from second to fourth-choice hooker was premature.

Captain Peter O'Mahony is now an established international, but he will need to prove his leadership credentials, while Jamie Hagan has a chance to establish himself before heading to London Irish, where being out of sight could mean out of mind.

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November's Tests are unforgiving and Schmidt will have no room for experimenting against Samoa, Australia or New Zealand as he adjusts to the time constraints of international management and the 2014 Six Nations.

The former Leinster coach knows that gems need to be unearthed in the desert next week in order to bolster his squad ahead of his first season in charge.

Tests against the USA and Canada should be relatively routine ahead of those November battles, but for those with a point to make it should be an interesting June.

Six players in particular have something to prove in North America.

1 SEAN CRONIN

The Leinster hooker can't have been impressed when he was told he was off to Georgia. That tour is about developing the next generation and here was a 27-year-old with 26 caps relegated to fourth choice.

Dylan Hartley's foul-mouthed accusations of Wayne Barnes' motivations were roundly seen as a boon for Best, but they did Cronin a major favour too. Had Hartley's suspension come when the tours were ongoing, then Damien Varley would have been boarding a flight as the squads are to be left separate if possible once the tours have begun.

It is now up to the Limerick native to use his snub to his advantage and force his way back into favour. He goes to the States behind team-mate Richardt Strauss and Munster's Mike Sherry in the pecking order, but he offers impact off the bench, as shown during his Pro12 final cameo on Saturday.

2 PETER O'MAHONY

Best's promotion left a void at captain, but the coaches had already nominated O'Mahony for the honour and now the 23-year-old will become Ireland's youngest captain since Brian O'Driscoll when he leads the team out at the BBVB Compass Stadium on June 8.

He looks set to play at No 8, but the true test of O'Mahony's tour will be how he connects with his team-mates and how his captaincy runs.

This may be a short tour, but it affords him a gilt-edged opportunity to connect with the coaches and the players and O'Mahony can cement his status in the Irish game by doing it well.

For, despite his obvious qualities and heroic displays, the reality for O'Mahony and all the back-rows is that they play in Ireland's most heavily populated area. Adding the leadership string to his bow would be a real bonus when the selection headaches hit Schmidt next season.

3 JAMIE HAGAN

The Balbriggan tighthead was in tears as he said goodbye to the RDS on Saturday and it can't have escaped the 26-year-old that it was only when he confirmed his departure that he finally established his place at his home province.

The move back from Connacht didn't seem to work out for Hagan and, when Michael Bent was parachuted in ahead of him last November, there was little surprise that his agent started making plans. However, the prop proved his worth in the closing stages of the season as Leinster won the double and will be missed.

England-based players rarely get a look-in for Ireland, but if Hagan can see off Declan Fitzpatrick to support Mike Ross and even gain a start he can at least leave knowing that his stock has sky-rocketed in the months since his departure to London Irish on a three-year deal was confirmed.

4 TOM COURT

Court was given a chance to re-establish himself in Cian Healy's absence at Murrayfield and it didn't go well. The Australian-born Ulster loosehead was under pressure from Jack McGrath for this tour until injuries to Paddy McAllister and Denis Buckley gave him another shot.

Dave Kilcoyne is the man in form and should start the Tests, meaning the 32-year-old must take every opportunity he has to prove that he played an influential part in Ulster's fine scrummaging performances and not piggy-backed on the strong work of John Afoa and Best.

With a new generation of exciting props breathing down his neck, time could be running out for a man who has won 23 of his 30 caps off the bench.

5 ANDREW TRIMBLE

Cast aside by Declan Kidney after the defeat to South Africa last November, the Ulster winger had an excellent season for his club.

His hard-running style is sure to endear him to Schmidt, who values size in a backline and one wonders would his presence have been of value when Ireland's undersized wide men were being battered in the spring.

Still, there is a queue of younger men looking to take the back-three places and, given Kiss was part of the brains trust that dropped him, the 28-year-old knows that he has a chance to re-establish himself on tour.

6 KEVIN MCLAUGHLIN

The blindside is one of Schmidt's most trusted lieutenants but appeared, along with fellow tourist Dan Tuohy, to have fallen out of favour with Kidney after last year's humiliating 60-0 defeat to New Zealand.

It was harsh on a player who fully played his part a week earlier when Ireland pushed the All Blacks to the pin of their collar and he has bounced back with a stellar season, playing a crucial role in Leinster's double glory.

He faces competition for the No 6 jersey from Iain Henderson, but Schmidt knows him well and McLaughlin can use this tour to reclaim his place.

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