Kleyn in green, last chance saloon and more Ireland team talking points

Plus, Tommy O’Donnell is set for his first cap in over three years against Italy on Saturday.

JOE SCHMIDT HAS this afternoon announced his first team of the World Cup summer, as Ireland begin their four-match warm-up series against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. 

You can view the full team here, while below we take a closer look at some of the main talking points from today’s announcement at Carton House.

Race to Japan hots up 

Joey Carbery Carbery in training at Carton House this week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The battle for the half-back places behind Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will hot up on Saturday afternoon, as Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery are handed rare starting opportunities in the nine and 10 jerseys respectively.

With Sexton, who suffered a thumb injury in pre-season, and Murray kept in cold storage for the time being, Leinster’s McGrath gets the nod ahead of Kieran Marmion, who is on the bench, and John Cooney to push his case for inclusion for Japan.

After missing the Six Nations through injury, McGrath will make his first Ireland appearance since November 2018, and it is a chance, you feel, he needs to seize with absolute conviction to stand any chance of getting on the plane.

“I’ve just got to put my hand up,” the Leinster nine said on Tuesday. 

“I suppose in attack, keep the game flowing, keep pace on the ball. In defence, just slot into the line when I need to, play a good kicking game, not just be solid but you’ve got to show what you can do.

Show you’re versatile if you’re in different positions, different scenarios, just keep a calm head. It is our first game of the season as well, so there will be mistakes.

Carbery, meanwhile, is a near-certainty to make the 31-man squad but will also be keen to get back on the pitch in a green jersey and remind Schmidt of his qualities at 10, with Jack Carty and Ross Byrne also in contention behind Sexton.

Carty, who is coming off the back of a superb season with Connacht, is likely to win his fourth cap off the bench on Saturday, while Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell form the midfield partnership.   

In addition to the battle for positions at centre, competition is intense in the back three too. Dave Kearney returns to the starting XV for the first time since Fiji in November 2017, with Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour at 14 and 15 respectively.

“Those are the lucky boys to get to represent the group,” Andy Farrell said this afternoon.

“Cohesion is the word we have been looking for all week really. It’s not going to be perfect, no game is, especially the first game of the season but we have to play the game as it happens, we stick to the plan. Can we adapt on the run? That’s all part of the process.” 

Kleyn’s debut 

Jean Kleyn Munster's Kleyn is set for his debut. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He officially becomes eligible to represent Ireland through the three-year residency rule today, and Schmidt has wasted little time in getting Jean Kleyn into his team for a closer look at the South African-born second row.

With Ultan Dillane released from the squad at the start of the week, Munster’s Kleyn appears to be in a direct shootout with provincial team-mate Tadhg Beirne for the final second row berth, with Devin Toner, James Ryan and Iain Henderson shoo-ins, fitness permitting. 

Simon Easterby admitted earlier in the summer that Kleyn was ‘behind the eight ball’ as he bids to force his way into Schmidt’s plans so late in the day, but selected alongside Toner in the engine room this weekend, the 25-year-old will be relishing the opportunity to stake his claim in green.

As an old-school ‘enforcer’, Kleyn brings huge physicality to the game and through his second row partnership with Beirne at Munster last season, further displayed his tackling, carrying, rucking, scrummaging and mauling strengths.

He will be hoping to bring all that and more to the international stage and it will be fascinating to watch what Kleyn can do on the pitch after making a big impression in camp over the long pre-season period.

On Kleyn, Farrell — who has taken charge this week with Schmidt back in New Zealand — added: “Jean’s character is one that everyone took to him straight away.”

The return of TOD  

Tommy O’Donnell O'Donnell is back in contention after missing the 2015 World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Opportunity knocks for a host of players this weekend, but no one is more deserving of their chance than Tommy O’Donnell, who will win his 13th cap — and first since March 2016 — against Italy. 

The Munster back row cruelly missed the 2015 World Cup after badly dislocating his hip in the opening warm-up game against Wales four years ago, but he has rebounded from setback after setback to come a full circle.

Even still, O’Donnell made just eight starts for his province last season, owing to shoulder surgery in January, making his involvement on Saturday afternoon all the more remarkable.

Injuries to Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy have, of course, opened the door at seven for O’Donnell, and the 32-year-old has more than impressed Schmidt and the coaches during pre-season, earning the first window to shine against the Azzurri. 

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It is a testament to O’Donnell’s resilience and work ethic that he has got himself back in contention after so much time on the sidelines, and he will be hoping to bring his usual energy, industry and dynamism to the openside position.

The back row selection, in general, is intriguing. Rhys Ruddock — who captains Ireland — gets the nod at blindside having finished the season strongly there with Leinster, while Jordi Murphy gets the chance to display his versatility at number eight, with CJ Stander — who this week became a father — and Jack Conan not involved.

Last chance saloon

Dave Kearney Dave Kearney is back in the fold. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While Kleyn and Munster’s Mike Haley are in line for their first caps at the Aviva, this fixture also represents something of a last chance saloon for many of the 23. 

Beirne, as mentioned, will be looking over his shoulder now that Kleyn is officially an Irishman, while Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter and Rob Herring know they will need big showings in the front row.

In the case of the props, flexibility and versatility has been spoken about quite extensively by management, who will likely whittle it down to bring five to Japan, as Schmidt did four years ago. 

Connacht’s Finlay Bealham and Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne sit out this week, with Cian Healy and John Ryan named as the reserves for Italy, while Herring and Niall Scannell will battle it out for one of the hooker positions behind captain Rory Best and Sean Cronin.

Farrell insisted this weekend’s team have not been told this is their one and only chance, but individually many of them will know that a failure to perform — both personally and in the collective — will greatly reduce their chances of making the final 31-man cut. 

The players not involved this weekend: Finlay Bealham, Rory Best, Jack Conan, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Dave Kilcoyne, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Will Addison, Bundee Aki, Ross Byrne, John Cooney, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Rob Kearney, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Jacob Stockdale.

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Ryan Bailey

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