Saturday 24 August 2019

Brendan Fanning: Most of Saturday's focus will be on Ireland's 10 – not least because that’s where he is playing

Ireland's Joey Carbery can play at fly-half, scrum-half or full-back
Ireland's Joey Carbery can play at fly-half, scrum-half or full-back
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Not much point in throwing the same players out on the field three weeks running if the opposition are at the end of their season, and low on fuel.

So as with any November series, the middle game is the point at which the gate is opened and fresh legs are given a run.

In this case only Devin Toner and Andrew Conway are being asked to start again. And if things are going well then the second row might not have to finish, allowing Kieran Treadwell off the bench for his third cap.

And after new caps were handed out last week to Bundee Aki and Darren Sweetnam, Chris Farrell will join them. Would he be getting this if he were still playing his club rugby in France?

His pairing with Stuart McCloskey in midfield gives Ireland perhaps the biggest combination they have ever had, in any era. Which will be a comfort to Joey Carbery who can use them to get out of trouble.

Most focus will be on the Leinster 10 – not least because that’s where he is playing. After six runs at full back for Leinster this is his first start of the season at outhalf. Joe Schmidt gets a bit hot under the collar when it is suggested that he has an influence over provincial selections. If he had as much as he’d like then Carbery, and not Ross Byrne, would be starting at 10 when Johnny Sexton is not available.

So this is valuable for both player and coach. Schmidt will hope that Darren Sweetnam – who looks like he could turn his hand to anything involving a ball – gets a chance to show he can deliver at this level. And on the basis of the few minutes he got against South Africa that looks positive.

Up front Schmidt is light enough on caps aside from Toner and Jack McGrath, who needs a big game to regain some of the ground he has lost. Of the others you’d expect Jack Conan to be mad for action. He came back from the summer tour in pole position for number eight and then picked up a knock at exactly the wrong time, having been involved every week with Leinster bar one.

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It will help Conan that he has Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock for company in the back row. Ruddock took the perfect line for his try off the bench against South Africa, reinforcing what he has to offer: a knack for doing the right thing at the right time.

Like Conan he had a very impressive summer tour, and even if he struggles for attention in a back row queue stuffed with talent, Ruddock’s value is a real asset. In games like this that’s what Schmidt will rely on. He has, in Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, two big hitters to come off the bench to up the ante at the scrum. With 12 of his squad on five caps or less he’ll need the experienced crew to set the tone. And he has enough of them on board to provide a safety net.

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