As the countdown begins to Saturday’s high-profile clash between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva, we take a look at the possible Irish team Joe Schmidt will name tomorrow at lunchtime to face the All-Blacks.
His hand has been forced to a certain extent by injuries to Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien, while it was also confirmed earlier this week that Conor Murray will definitely not be parachuted into the team in time to face the Kiwi’s this weekend. On a positive note Rob Kearney, Gary Ringrose and Kieran Marmion all took a full part in training yesterday after their respective knocks.
The possibility of Conor Murray’s name appearing on the team sheet was always a long-shot given Joe Schmidt’s conservative nature. Murray, when fully fit, is head and shoulders above his rivals for the 9 jersey. However, there is no way Joe would have gambled on a player so short of game time. All Irish players on professional contracts with the four provinces would have regular fitness tests to establish their normal fitness and performance levels, these KPI’s (Key performance indicators) can then be used as a benchmark to establish a players recovery as they return to play. Even a player as gifted as Murray would be unlikely to come straight from a long-term lay-off to close to his maximum potential in a short space of time and there would be no greater test of his recovery than throwing him straight back in against the World Champions.
That left a straight choice between Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath for the scrum-half spot. John Cooney has had limited opportunities to impress, a fifteen-minute cameo off the bench against Italy in Chicago will surely be added to in two weeks time against the USA. Luke McGrath started that game and it didn’t help his cause that the first half of that game was so slow and sluggish. On the plus side he boxed kicked well and he showed his customary ability to be in the right place at the right time when running a great support line to finish off a great break from Jordan Larmour on 32mins. McGrath also featured off the bench on 57mins last weekend and exploited a tiring Argentine defence, he made the most of a scrum advantage on 66 mins to step inside Pablo Matera and score.
Kieran Marmion started last weeks game against Argentina and was one of Irelands best performers when they were up against it in the first half. He showed great speed of thought and quick feet in scoring the opening try of the game. I think the key deciding factor between Marmion and McGrath will be Marmion’s greater experience in dealing with pressure situations. While McGrath usually looks sharp in a Leinster side that is usually dominating and securing quick ball, he can struggle when his side are on the back foot. This was most recently seen in Leinster’s defeat to Toulouse. While his counterpart Marmion has more experience of dealing with a pack who aren’t as dominant as the all-conquering Leinster and it’s unlikely the Irish pack will have it all their own way this Saturday. So, in my opinion, this is why Marmion deserves to get the nod for this game.
In the front row expect Healy and Furlong to start on either side of Rory Best. There was criticism of Best from some quarters for a couple of line-out malfunctions in the first half on Saturday, and while he didn’t play to his usual standards he wasn’t helped by a new pairing of Iain Henderson and James Ryan in the second row. It’s no coincidence that when Devin Toner came on for Henderson on the hour mark the lineout functioned better. That brings me onto the second-row pairing, I expect Toner will start alongside Ryan on Saturday. Tadhg Bernie was very impressive against the Italians and Henderson is offers great work around the field, however, in the heat of battle Toner’s experience will be valued by Schmidt and James Ryan has already become almost undroppable.
The back row picture becomes a bit clearer after Sean O’Brien’s unfortunate arm-break on Saturday. Peter O’Mahony, C.J.Stander and Dan Leavy will be favourites for the three back-row spots. Josh Van Der Flier will probably get a spot on the bench alongside Iain Henderson or Tadgh Beirne who both can cover second row or back row, with Henderson’s expirence giving him the slight nod.
Sexton and Marmion as the half back pairing and due Robbie Henshaw’s injury Aki and Ringrose will be the centre pairing. Will Addison deputised well last week and will provide cover off the bench. It was a case of two steps forward one step back so far in the autumn window for the precocious talent that is Jordan Larmour. After his sublime performance in Chicago, he was brought back down to earth against Argentina. The conditions were tough for a fullback and a couple of spilt balls underlined that the conservative, but reliable pair of hands offered by Rob Kearney is the more sensible bet for this weekend’s test.
Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale will be expected to be named on either wing. However, I expect Jordan Larmour could feature off the bench for either of these players at some stage.