Saturday 21 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: Schmidt finds the right blend of youth and experience in series defining Test with Argentina

Adam Byrne during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Adam Byrne during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At the start of this Guinness Series you wouldn't have envisaged such an inexperienced Ireland three quarter line starting against the Pumas, but between centre and wing on Saturday there will be all of five caps between four players.

The safety net for Joe Schmidt is the number of air miles flown by those immediately around them.

So Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will navigate for the back division. The other two elements of the spine – Rory Best and CJ Stander – will give direction to the forward pack.

It wasn't planned this way. A hamstring issue for Robbie Henshaw means his series ends early, which will be of immediate concern for Leinster with the back-to-back Champions Cup ties against Exeter fast approaching. 

Equally they will be keen to see how Adam Byrne fares on his debut. His inclusion gives Ireland aerial targets on either wing – along with Jacob Stockdale – and a physical presence that complements Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki at centre.

But Byrne's inclusion in the November squad was the surprise selection of the 37 named last month. With Keith Earls hamstrung it means 16 of the 17 backs will have got a run, but Byrne's form with Leinster to date has thrown up as many questions as answers, primarily on defence. So how he copes on Saturday will be a feature of what is certain to be a boneshaker.

In that regard Schmidt will wish Dan Leavy was available. The flanker came home from the summer tour with reputation enhanced, and this series was to be the next step in getting more Test time under his belt. This is good news for Rhys Ruddock, who was outstanding on the same tour, and now plays a part in each of the three Tests, with one as captain.

For James Ryan it was his ambition, after a successful summer, to get a start this month. His third cap - off the bench against the Springboks – only clarified that goal. Statistically he is still an oddity for by close of business on Saturday he will have four caps for his country and only five for his province.  And it will be interesting to see what he looks like surrounded by a heavyweight crew.

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If the poisoned chalice for a greenhorn is to be thrown in to the fray, away from home, surrounded by fellas similarly short on experience, then the drink that cheers is to be the odd man out.

With seven Lions in Ireland's starting pack on Saturday, James Ryan clearly is that man. Even so you'd expect him to look like he belongs. That's what has got him to this point, and on this trajectory that's what will have him in red in South Africa in 2021.

Injuries notwithstanding, Schmidt has managed to spread the load without increasing massively the risk of having it spilt by players only learning their trade. The absence of Henshaw will keep him awake on Friday night. If it works out ok he'll sleep like a baby on Saturday.

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