Saturday 24 August 2019

Schmidt is right to risk result for long-term reward as he puts his faith in next generation

Ireland's Chris Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Chris Farrell. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The easy thing for Joe Schmidt to do over the course of this three-week window was to use his bench to take a look at fresh options.

As he pointed out himself before the start of the Guinness Series, there is no soft touch across the three home fixtures this November. South Africa, Fiji and Argentina are all ranked in the world's top 10 and are opponents worthy of respect.

By making 13 changes and resting key front-liners like Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray for tomorrow's game against the Pacific Islanders, Schmidt is putting the result at risk.

Long-term, he hopes to reap the reward.

Ireland's second-string collection of squad men and future prospects is still a decent team on paper, but they are up against it to put together a coherent display given the number of new combinations.

Those not involved in the win over South Africa spent the first two weeks of their spell in Carton House preparing the first team and running Springbok moves.

They have had five days to get a game-plan together, most of them have never played with one another and they are taking on a team they are expected to beat comfortably, but it's a team of athletes that is packed with talent from the Top 14.

The bookies have Ireland as 26-point favourites for the game which seems remarkable given the changes Schmidt has made to his line-up.

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majority Only seven of the starting XV have played more than five times for Ireland and the majority of the caps won by the eight newer faces were won against Japan and the United States last June.

Chris Farrell is the only debutant, but for Andrew Porter, Rob Herring and Darren Sweetnam there is a first start. Joey Carbery and Kieran Marmion are paired together at half-back and handed a rare opportunity to step out from the shadows of Murray and Sexton.

It's a necessary nod to the future.

Schmidt has 18 Tests left before the 2019 Rugby World Cup kicks off, 10 of which are Six Nations games and three are on a tough tour to Australia next June.

"Every one is incredibly precious because you don't get that many opportunities," Schmidt said.

"There's always those learnings that you want to take out of it, but there's no point in taking learnings out of somewhere and not having anywhere to apply them. So, then, will Joey start again against Argentina?

"We'd say that's probably unlikely at this stage because Johnny is fully fit, so when will he apply those learnings?

"I can't really say, because then you're into the Six Nations and we start with France away, you know?

"Obviously, that's a massive game for us away in the Stade de France. It's always incredibly tough.

"They got us by a point there last time, we'll have to go as fully loaded as we can. So that's why this window for Joey is the ideal window and he's really driven to make the most of it."

Porter is perhaps the most fascinating inclusion. It is just his second professional start at tighthead prop, a position he switched to last year beginning with UCD at All-Ireland League level, stepping up to the British and Irish Cup and then the Leinster senior team. He has yet to play for his province in Europe, but this is his third cap.

"It's the acid test for Andrew, without a doubt," Schmidt said.

"He's got good people around him, he's thoroughly impressed us with his attitude to training.

"He's a long-term project for the right here and right now suddenly. That's what makes him of real interest to us on Saturday.

"Hopefully he can impress and get comfortable in what's an uncomfortable environment."

Porter was one of the four stars of the U-20 Rugby World Cup final run in 2016, three of whom are being fast-tracked with 2019 in mind.

Jacob Stockdale looks certain to regain his starting place after his try-scoring exploits last week, while James Ryan played a key role in the build-up to his old underage team-mate's try.

Max Deegan has plenty of competition for the Leinster back-row spots and hasn't made the same levels of progress as his team-mates, but Porter has clearly been earmarked as an impact replacement for Tadhg Furlong in the future.

Japan is looming over everything Ireland do right now and Schmidt is keen to learn the lessons of 2015 by having as many options as possible in his squad.

He has risked the result against Fiji who have plenty of game-breaking talent to cause Ireland problems at the Aviva Stadium.

They lost to Italy last weekend on a poor pitch in difficult conditions, but they'll relish the chance to run out on the pristine surface in Ballsbridge and will back the likes of Leone Nakarawa, Timoci Nagusa and Nemani Nadolo to break tackles and cause problems for Ireland.

They are not an opponent to be taken lightly, but Schmidt has taken a gamble.

It's a long-range investment.

If his team click and meet the bookies' expectations all the better, but he is hoping these players are stressed by what the Islanders do because how they respond will be the telling factor.

He needs them to be ready for action in two years' time. Tomorrow's performance will be an informative one.

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