Brendan Fanning: 'Joe Schmidt has the resources to cope when injury crisis hits'
The arrival of Sam Arnold off the bench on Saturday will complete the process of cap sharing ahead of next year’s World Cup. Joe Schmidt assembled 42 players late last month – three of them uncapped – so between that group and those uninvolved over these four games he has all the bases covered.
Between injury and selection the following group were elsewhere this month: Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Conor Murray, James Cronin, James Tracy and Marty Moore. Add Jean Kleyn who becomes Ireland-qualified in the summer and the coach has the guts of 50 players from whom he needs to pick 31 for Japan. And that's before he looks beyond these shores if the mood takes him.
This illustrates the speed required from any bolter to make a name for himself in the World Cup race. To be in such good health almost a year away from the event itself is a unique departure in Irish rugby.
Naturally enough not everyone in such a large group will be delighted at the way things have worked out over the past month. The happy clan will include Will Addison who arrived as a utility back and gets to start at 15 against the Eagles having started at centre, when Robbie Henshaw was ruled out, against Argentina. On top of a run off the bench against Italy in Chicago he is firmly on track.
Ross Byrne too will be pleased that his near miss in Australia when being the only uncapped tourist didn’t extend to the end of this year. Benching for Joey Carbery in two games was what he hoped for, and that’s what he’s got. And Stuart McCloskey will be relieved that his wait for a third cap isn’t stretching far beyond a year since Fiji in 2017. Moreover he starts against the Eagles – which beats by a country mile coming off the bench – in quality company with Carbery inside him and Garry Ringrose on his outside.
With a back three of Addison, Andrew Conway and Darren Sweetnam, this has the potential to look far more than a combination filling in against the weakest of the four opponents this month.
On the flip side are those who wanted more from November. Ulster fans will put John Cooney into that category but Leinster’s Luke McGrath won’t have been satisfied with the experience either. His battle is with Kieran Marmion, not Cooney, so having to bench two games running isn’t ideal. Marmion defended manfully against the All Blacks but it’s hard to see what he does better than McGrath, whose ability to punch above his weight is first class. The bad news for McGrath is that when Marmion recovers from ankle surgery he will re-enter the same space in Schmidt's head.
Rob Herring was another earmarked for a big month. Injury reduced him to one game in five weeks in the build-up to the series and it has cost him. Having been so good in Australia in the summer he wasn’t budgeting solely for a run off the bench this Saturday. Tadhg Beirne on the other hand was fit and ready and proved as much in Chicago. He packs down this weekend with Iain Henderson, the man to benefit from a big selection call against New Zealand and who took full value from it.
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That illustrates perfectly the riches at Joe Schmidt’s disposal just now. He will run headlong into an injury crisis at some point in the New Year but knows he has the resources to cope. How he uses those resources will be shaped further by the damage his side can do to the Eagles.