Thursday 18 October 2018

Two uncapped players set to make Ireland squad but out-half remains main concern for Australia tour

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

'They'll be coming down off the back of a Grand Slam - strong favourites to do well down there. Poor old us. We'll just have to put up against the big green giant when it comes down!"

Not a man picked on either squad and there goes Michael Cheika positioning his side firmly in the underdog category.

Given the history of Irish tours to that part of the world, this tells us more about the Wallaby coach than it does about the merits of the two teams.

By the time we land Down Under next month, he will have the tourists installed as untouchable. Cheika was talking to former Ireland flanker Neil Best for rugbypass.com, and he managed to get in a bit about staying in touch with Johnny Sexton, who came in for special attention when the Lions played Cheika's Waratahs in 2013. Expect more of the same.

Also, expect to see Sexton's name on the list on Wednesday, when Joe Schmidt announces his 32/33-man squad for the three-Test tour. It's always worth asking if someone of Sexton's value should be rested at a time like this: the end of a Grand Slam and Champions Cup-winning season when, 15 months out from a World Cup, a summer off could be a summer well spent.

Sexton ruled that out at the post-match press conference in Bilbao last weekend. He can't wait.

In June 2003, England flew south with a very hard-earned Grand Slam and added wins over Australia and New Zealand. It was all about laying down a marker. From the last match of the 2002 Six Nations, when they put 50 on Wales, to the World Cup final 18 months later, the only game they lost out of 25 was a World Cup warm-up against France in Marseille. By a point.

Currently, Ireland's stats are not on the same plane, but 12 consecutive wins stretching back to the Championship defeat in the Millennium Stadium last year is a massive achievement.

The prospect of adding two of the next three for a first series win Down Under since 1979 is very attractive. A clean sweep and the credit unions would be inundated with calls about a trip to Japan in 2019.

So, allowing for those on the injured list, Ireland will be fully loaded. That means no Seán O'Brien, Chris Farrell, or Josh van der Flier, and while the management are hopeful that Iain Henderson will be fit to board the plane, it's by no means a given. To lose the Ulster second-row would be to rob Ireland of 50 per cent of a partnership that, alongside James Ryan, is in the same ballpark as Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.

The main issue for Schmidt is who to bring as a third outhalf. If Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan were still in the system then the coach would be marvelling at the depth of his resources. Instead, he is trying to close the gap between Joey Carbery and game-time at 10. His selection again at fullback for Leinster yesterday illustrated the distance between Schmidt and Leo Cullen on this issue.

Australia is a long way from home if one of your 10s breaks down and you don't have sufficient cover on the trip. So either Schmidt brings Ross Byrne, whom he believes is an inferior outhalf to Carbery, or else he wings it with John Cooney covering nine and 10. Bringing both is doable in a squad of 33, so we'll see what way that pans out.

Even allowing for that dilemma, if the coach can get this lot on the flight without further setback they can travel in confidence. Just like Michael Cheika says.

Possible Ireland Squad

15: R Kearney, A Conway

14/11: K Earls, J Larmour, J Stockdale

12/13: G Ringrose, S Arnold*, R Henshaw, B Aki

10 J Sexton, J Carbery, R Byrne*

9 C Murray, J Cooney, L McGrath

1/3: C Healy, J McGrath, T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan

2: R Best, S Cronin, N Scannell

4/5: James Ryan, I Henderson, T Beirne*, D Toner

6/7/8: P O'Mahony, CJ Stander, J Conan, D Leavy, R Ruddock, J Murphy

(*uncapped)

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