Sunday 22 July 2018

Comment: Third test selection broke very nicely for three players who were sweating for their places

Sean Cronin, Bundee Aki and Jack McGrath all made the cut for Ireland's starting team to face Australia.
Sean Cronin, Bundee Aki and Jack McGrath all made the cut for Ireland's starting team to face Australia.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It remains to be seen if Ross Byrne gets off the bench in what we still call the Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday. If he does, he will join the elite club of those capped for their country.

And that would complete the link between those who got on the plane in Dublin three weeks ago and those who got some game time.

In so doing Joe Schmidt has declared a measure of faith in Johnny Sexton’s understudy at Leinster. Human nature would point him towards giving Byrne a run down the home straight if the scoreboard had the right look about it. But the coach knows that events might overtake that a whole lot earlier.

So the inclusion of Byrne is a sign of the times. And the selection of Sean Cronin at hooker is an interesting turnaround. A week ago it looked like he was going to have to turbo-load some weight to look like a contender at the scrum. Given that he had attributed his good form with Leinster this season to having dropped a few kilos you could forgive him if his head was in a spin.

Now he’s back in again, in an all Leinster front row where fortunately Schmidt has Cian Healy fit for the bench. Given the coach’s short patience span for those who commit unforced errors – McGrath’s hand-tap on Nick Phipps in the Melbourne endgame is a textbook case of same – it’s a happy development for the St Mary’s man, who could have paid a higher price than putting the win at risk.

So too have things worked out well for Bundee Aki. The foot injury for Garry Ringrose makes it a straightforward call but you wonder if Schmidt would have gone down this road anyway. With Chris Farrell at home rehabbing his knee, the most combative midfield pairing available is Aki at 12 and Henshaw at 13. So it suits Schmidt to have them ready for action in a series-deciding Test match where the prize stretches beyond bringing the Lansdowne Cup back home as carry-on luggage.

The non-availability of Iain Henderson also saved time for Schmidt in putting together his forward pack. His optimum trio of match day second rows puts James Ryan and Devin Toner alongside Henderson, but the presence of Tadhg Beirne takes the heat out of the Ulsterman’s absence. By the time we get to the World Cup next year Munster’s Jean Kleyn will be in that mix as well, and hopefully Ultan Dillane's career will have taken off again. As for Kleyn, the moment his three years’ residency is served Schmidt will be waiting at the gate with a suitcase full of Irish gear and the words to Ireland's Call.

That’s why game-time on this trip is so important. Over the three games the load has been well spread, serving the dual purpose of saving some wear and tear at the tail end of the season, and laying another few building blocks for Japan. It is easier to pursue this policy on paper than in the real world where the focus on winning the next game can come with blinkers.

In those circumstances the injury to Dan Leavy has opened the door to Jack Conan when he might not have expected it. A back row of himself, CJ Stander and captain Peter O’Mahony is not one you would have pencilled in a few months back as the combination to start the last game of the season. Certainly Jordi Murphy would have been hoping to get another start in what would have been a return to the trio who opened the campaign in Brisbane. 

Murphy is virtually guaranteed to get a run though. It’s not quite the same scenario for Ross Byrne, but at the outhalf has not been brought along solely for the ride.

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