Two wins and strong showing against Kiwis required
Injury worries and quality of opposition leaves little room for manoeuvre this month, writes Jim Glennon
A new international season brings with it a new man at the helm, a renewed optimism and possibly a new captain. It brings also many of the same old challenges, not to mention welcome respite from the European rugby saga.
The new coach is brought centre-stage with a daunting schedule of Autumn internationals – a resurgent and dangerously underrated Samoa, an under-fire Australian side showing some signs of renewal under their own new coach, and the redoubtable New Zealand is a huge ask whatever way you look at it. No time then for bedding-in and getting the feel of the squad and little, if any, scope for experimentation with his preferred combinations and playing style. It's game-on immediately and Joe Schmidt's team must hit the ground running next Saturday.
Traditionally an opening game against one of the lesser nations, although physically-challenging, would provide little more than a soft-landing into the series and a reasonably comfortable win; not so Samoa in recent years, however. Another reminder, if such were needed, of the ever-evolving new order in world rugby and its more competitive challenges, is the disruption caused to Schmidt's preparations by Jonathan Sexton's contractual obligations to his new employers at Racing Metro and his departure from camp to link up with his club at Biarritz.
The question marks hanging over the squad, of which there are many, begin with the captaincy. There was a lot of attention paid to the seating arrangements, particularly front and centre, for the team photo earlier this week and it appears that Paul O'Connell was allocated the position beside IRFU president Pat Fitzgerald. If this is a sign of Schmidt's choice as leader, I'd be happy. While Jamie Heaslip had a difficult job last season in circumstances that were less than ideal, O'Connell's sheer presence and influence makes him difficult to overlook.
Brian O'Driscoll's injury woes have been a consistent theme of recent weeks. Understandably, Schmidt indicated that he would take O'Driscoll's guidance in relation to his capacity to play – the pair enjoy a great personal relationship and O'Driscoll knows his body better than anyone and, if fit, should play all three games.
Up front, Mike Ross is in a similar situation and will need a more gradual re-introduction. Stephen Archer has impressed in the early season, one of a number of younger props to do so, particularly Leinster's Martin Moore; Ross remains however, for the moment at least, the preferred option for the heat of battle.
Question marks remain over the fitness of O'Connell too, and his absence would be a major blow, particularly in the already-declared absence of Donnacha Ryan; it appears that the time has come for the vastly-improved Devin Toner to step up to the international plate. He has, this season, continually outshone his newly-arrived partner at Leinster, the incumbent Mike McCarthy, and while he has had some false dawns in the past, his recent form warrants selection as first-choice partner for O'Connell.
Whlie there is a hunger among the public, after a poor Six Nations, for signs of even short-term progress, the context in which Schmidt operates is that of the next Rugby World Cup. If Ireland are to put an end to a dismal record in the tournament, the development of realistic options in certain positions is crucial. O'Driscoll's imminent retirement gives rise immediately to the question of his successor – while Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald, Brendan Macken and maybe even Jared Payne are all currently in contention, just who gets the first nod from Schmidt will be fascinating, even if only as a replacement from the bench.
Argentina in June 2014 is the most likely, if inhospitable, venue for a contender to stake a real claim, but they'd all prefer to have banked positive game-time in the number 13 jersey before subjecting themselves to a tough assignment in South America.
There were some interesting omissions from the squad for this series, chief among them Munster prop Dave Kilcoyne and Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion. Both would have been close calls with Jack McGrath and Isaac Boss getting the respective nods.
Schmidt's outstanding track record as a squad-manager speaks for itself and he will have good reasons for every one of his selections but, for me, leaving out Marmion is an opportunity missed. The youngster was outstanding in Connacht's narrow defeat to Saracens in Galway and while Isaac Boss is a proven and wily operator, and has more than repaid the faith shown in him in the past by Schmidt, Marmion looks to me to be a player for the future who could flourish in the environment of the current international squad.
Realism dictates that two wins, with a strong performance in the other game, would be acceptable. Both Samoa and Australia are within the compass of the current group and while results are of obvious importance after last season's struggles, real indications of a substantive movement towards a distinctive style of play will be of equal importance.
For that reason, the series will command higher-than-usual levels of interest – which might well be fortuitous, as there's no low-hanging fruit this Autumn.