Tuesday 17 September 2019

Opportunity knocks for late runners in Japan race

 

Joe Schmidt will decide his future soon
Joe Schmidt will decide his future soon

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

As the evenings shorten and the temperature drops, so the rugby season takes another step towards the important business.

Given the staggered nature of the key players' re-introduction to training, the first four weeks are always a mixed bag but this weekend's return to interprovincial action marks a step up in the stakes and the intensity.

John Cooney during Ireland Rugby squad training. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
John Cooney during Ireland Rugby squad training. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

For Joe Schmidt, the next two weeks will be an informative guide to the form and fitness of the players he hopes to select for the November internationals.

The extra game against Italy means the coach is likely to name a large squad for the four games in as many weeks and, while the sense leaving Australia was that he has a good idea of which players will make the plane to Japan in less than a year's time, he is not ruling out a late run.

He will be keeping a close eye on the action in Galway, Limerick, Belfast and Dublin over the next 11 days before he makes his final calls.

Back-Three

Once again, Schmidt has options to choose from.

Will Addison of Ulster. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Will Addison of Ulster. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

The combination of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale was firmly first-choice last season, with Jordan Larmour earning the bench spot on the back of his fine form.

Earls and Stockdale have yet to play this season and Larmour has hit the ground running, while Darren Sweetnam and Andrew Conway have made big impressions for Munster in the early games.

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Connacht's Niyi Adeolokun is another who has lit up the Guinness PRO14's early rounds but has work to do to get back in the frame and it looks more likely that Ulster's Will Addison will be one of the few uncapped players in the squad after his strong start since moving from Sale.

Midfield

Injury has meant that Schmidt has been able to choose between Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose for his two centre slots, but all three are currently fit and playing well. Munster's Rory Scannell should come into the equation as a fourth option, while Addison can cover the midfield.

Dave Kilcoyne during Munster Rugby squad training. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Dave Kilcoyne during Munster Rugby squad training. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Half-back

Ireland's settled squad is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the reserve scrum-half and third-choice out-half slots are the most widely discussed.

Given the doubts about Murray's availability, there is a real opportunity for Luke McGrath, John Cooney and Kieran Marmion this autumn and all three have started the campaign well.

Cooney has been the most impressive of the three so far and his head-to-head with Marmion on Friday week will be worth watching closely.

Joey Carbery will provide back-up for Sexton, but there is a third spot up for grabs. Ross Byrne is the incumbent and could get an opportunity to stake his claim in Galway this weekend, but Jack Carty is arguably the form out-half of the season and a couple of big displays could put him in the frame.

Front row

There is no sign yet of a return for Jack McGrath, which could open the door once again for Dave Kilcoyne who missed out on selection for the summer tour.

James Cronin and Denis Buckley are in better form, so Kilcoyne needs a big fortnight to nail down a spot.

Rory Best's impending return should see him back in the squad, with Seán Cronin likely to miss out despite a strong start to the season. Rob Herring and Niall Scannell are expected to retain their places.

With Marty Moore yet to make his Ulster bow, it seems unlikely that the tighthead pecking order will change much, although Finlay Bealham has started well.

Second row

The top three of James Ryan, Iain Henderson and James Ryan remain in position, while Tadhg Beirne is in the frame after impressing in Australia and in his first games for Munster.

Gavin Thornbury's injury is poorly timed and could open the door for either Quinn Roux or Ultan Dillane to return to the squad.

Back row

Seán O'Brien's impending return to action is a fillip for Schmidt who has already seen Josh van der Flier hit the ground running.

He has plenty of options, but is likely to rotate the attritional position during the window but the cadre of back-rows is likely to be familiar with Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock, Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander, Jack Conan and Dan Leavy all up and running.

A big fortnight from Connacht tyros Paul Boyle and Seán O'Brien could put them in the frame, but they may have to bide their time.

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