Ireland are poised to take first place in the IRB World Rankings if they can achieve some impressive results in the remaining Autumn Internationals. While Argentina and the USA are sure to be interesting games, the defining fixture will be the clash against the All Blacks on November 17. While reaching number one would be a great achievement, these matches give Joe Schmidt opportunities to bleed new players and to figure out what his best XV might be. With the Rugby World Cup looming, strength in depth has never been more important.
In Joe Schmidt’s 42-man squad, only three players have yet to pull on the green jersey – Ross Byrne, Will Addison, and Sam Arnold. Byrne will look to prove a point to Schmidt and put his name forward as a potential understudy to Jonathan Sexton, while Sam Arnold is pushing for a place in the centre, where he will face stiff competition. Will Addison has impressed for Ulster this season and will add much-needed experience and versatility to the back line.
Outside of the newcomers, Ireland’s squad is in fantastic shape. There are very few injuries at the moment and the boys in green are going into these fixtures almost fully loaded. It will be exciting to see which combinations Schmidt will go for. Expect the more experimental pairings in the USA match, while full Test teams are likely to be on show against Argentina and New Zealand. One major headache for Schmidt is the back-row, with a swarm of viable options. Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, and Dan Leavy have all returned from injury and will be looking for a spot alongside stalwarts like O’Mahony and Stander.
Another area where Schmidt has a bounty of choices is in the centre. Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw are likely to start but Bundee Aki won’t go away quietly, having held the 13 jersey during Ringrose’s injury last season. Stuart McCloskey is also back in the fray and Will Addison has stated that his favourite position is centre. It is likely that there will be some new and exciting partnerships in the upcoming fixtures.
However, it’s not all gone Joe Schmidt’s way. Conor Murray, arguably the best scrum-half in the world, has been ruled out of the Series due to a long-term neck injury, which he is currently rehabbing. While the priority is to make sure he is fit for the Six Nations and the World Cup, it will be interesting to see who Joe Schmidt opts for at number nine in the meantime. He has taken three options with him: Luke McGrath, John Cooney, and Kieran Marmion.
Each one brings different skills to the position. McGrath’s defensive work is phenomenal, and he has an innate ability to run the perfect support line on a breakaway, scoring a number of tries for Leinster. However, his pass is a little bit slower than Murray and giving teams like the All Blacks more time to set their defence could be detrimental. Cooney has been playing well for Ulster and has adequately filled the boots of fan favourite Ruan Pienaar. He brings with him the added bonus of being a terrific kicker and having the quickest pass. However, he has had the least amount of game time in the green jersey and that is sure to affect Schmidt’s decision. Marmion seems like the forgotten man, but he has never let his team down, be it Connacht or Ireland. He is incredibly dependable and is more than capable of managing a game. It could be that Marmion will be used as an impact from the bench, to try and slow down the tempo and see a game out.
“While youthful exuberance is a much-needed commodity in attack, when it comes to defending, experience is what is required. “
While this Ireland team is possibly the best team in our history, there is one thing that might derail their plan for World Cup glory and that is an over-reliance on experienced players. While there is raw talent available in the likes of Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale, and James Ryan in key areas of the pitch, Ireland lack the experience on the bench. While youthful exuberance is a much-needed commodity in attack, when it comes to defending, experience is what is required.
Players like Keith Earls and Rob Kearney provide that in abundance and, over the course of their careers, have shown time and again how good they are at reading the game, covering space and hitting their man. Not only are they dependable but they act as a sort of security blanket for younger players. Knowing someone like Kearney is covering the backfield allows Stockdale to be more attack-minded because of the calibre of player behind him.
If we were to lose some of these older players, either in November or at the World Cup, there is a question mark over whether the players on the bench could handle the pressure. That is one of the reasons that Will Addison is such a welcome addition. At 26, and with 10 years at Sale under his belt, he is likely to be a key man in Schmidt’s set-up over the next year.
Ireland’s remaining opponents will provide for some exciting and entertaining matches. Argentina’s performance in the Rugby Championship will not have gone unnoticed by the Ireland camp. This game is sure to be a war of attrition, given Los Pumas’ physical nature up front. Ireland will also have to be vigilant to stop Nicolás Sánchez, as he is sure to exploit any gaps he finds, either with his boot or with his lightning pace.
“New Zealand will have no intention of losing again and are sure to come out all guns blazing.”
New Zealand have been in flying form, securing yet another Rugby Championship to absolutely nobody’s surprise. However, what did turn a few heads was their dramatic loss to South Africa in Round Four. Rassie Erasmus’ side held out against a late surge from the All Blacks to secure a famous victory and showed the world that this team is more than beatable, going close to another victory a few weeks later. New Zealand will have no intention of losing again and are sure to come out all guns blazing. Despite losing Sam Cane to an injury, their squad looks as strong as ever, with Liam Squire, Joe Moody, and Nepo Laulala all back in.
The USA has never really taken to rugby, and while they have endeavoured to grow the game domestically, it has been less than fruitful thus far. They have named a rather small touring squad, and a number of the players added have just come off the back off a three-match losing streak in the Americas Pacific Challenge. It is important for the sport that teams like the USA can test their players at the highest level, but it is unlikely to pose a problem to Joe Schmidt’s men.
Ireland have a great chance in these Internationals to lay down a marker for the World Cup in 2019. If they can take their chances when they appear and stay disciplined, Joe Schmidt’s men could head into the Six Nations at the top of the table.
Ireland continue their Autumn campaign against Argentina on Saturday, November 10 in the Aviva Stadium at 6:30pm.