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Overshadowed by Lions, but Ireland a joy to watch at tail end of historic season

The finale of a lengthy international campaign is your early-morning appetiser.

Leinster's James Tracy and Munster's Andrew Conway start for Ireland against Japan tomorrow morning (6.40 Irish time).
Leinster's James Tracy and Munster's Andrew Conway start for Ireland against Japan tomorrow morning (6.40 Irish time).
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THROUGH THE FIRST two Tests of Ireland’s summer tour, there has been a running theme of something that looks suspiciously like joy and freedom.

It’s funny what a little youthful exuberance can do.

All too often we ascribe words of war to rugby – and the elite soldiers will suit up again in November – as this end-of-season tour variety can look like some general’s folly with tired and weary troops trudging into enemy territory with the odds stacked high against them.

The esprit de corps on display this tour can be partly attributed to ranking differential and the probability of victory against the US and Japan, but there’s more than that. The make-up of this squad, the dearth of caps and the style of rugby they are being allowed to play naturally brings a smile to faces.

Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock with Keith Earls Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The steady stream of pictures of players happily hopping into the horrors that await in barrels of icy water suggest a certain giddiness.  There is nobody dotting the ‘I’s of a lengthy campaign, this is an enormous chance for most men on tour.

So while the main media draw in the rugby world is surrounded by the bleak New Zealand winter, the non-Lions are scoring for fun in the sun.

The captain, Rhys Ruddock, has endured too much time on the sidelines not to love leading. The most experienced man on tour, Keith Earls, had a groin that ensured he rarely played a solid run of games during the season. The chance to attack teams with Andrew Conway, Tiernan O’Halloran and young Jacob Stockdale has the wing looking utterly relentless in the pursuit of line-breaks and a new record of nine tries (so far) in a season.

It goes all the way through the side: Kieran Marmion – who had to wait at least 20 minutes after everyone could see Conor Murray definitely couldn’t pass with an injured shoulder to be sent into a vital clash with Wales. Paddy Jackson has ground to make in caps-terms after sitting behind Ian Madigan for too long. Then his soon-to-be Ulster half-back partner John Cooney is primed to make a Test debut as a replacement..

Devin Toner and James Ryan Devin Toner imparts some wisdom to James Ryan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With ‘Plan B’ always sought when Ireland lose a big game, Rory Scannell knows he is capable of delivering a very different threat from 12 (and cover for 10) than Robbie Henshaw. Dan Leavy, though not involved tomorrow, has yet to look out of his depth at any level. And then there’s the really young faces: Stockdale, James Ryan, Kieran Treadwell and Andrew Porter. All four have powered into the Test arena and taken chances when presented to them.

Tomorrow morning (06.40, Eir Sport 2), Joe Schmidt’s side can add a little extra fuel to the good feeling on show by finishing off the season with a third tour win in the second Test against Japan.

If they can manage to again impose a fluid style on the game and reach towards the 50-point mark, it would give a nice upward-facing curve on the season’s trajectory.

It feels such a long time ago, just under eight months, since 111 years of history was banished with a victory in a nine-try shoot-out against the All Blacks. Things have been far from plain sailing since that glorious day in Chicago with the world champions avenging their loss and Ireland retreating to a more constrictive gameplan in a Six Nations campaign scuppered by defeats in Murrayfield (curse that bus) and Cardiff.

Ireland’s Simon Zebo Simon Zebo is one the four heroes of Soldier Field in Ireland's matchday squad this weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Denying England a record 19th straight Test win – not to mention a Grand Slam – was  almost as sweet as Soldier Field, but when the World Cup comes around in two years’ time we might just look back at this tour and savour the seeds sewn.

Just one hurdle before the summer then, Schmidt has made six changes and his opposite number Jamie Joseph eight from last weekend’s open affair.

21-year-old Kieran Treadwell gets his first Test start alongside Devin Toner while replacement James Ryan will join him on two international caps before he finally puts a Leinster appearance to his name next season. Kildare’s James Tracy also starts his first match for Ireland and the hooker will hope to hit both young men before he is called ashore.

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Luke Marshall rejoins Garry Ringrose in the centre with the Leinster man going some way to edging out Jared Payne as Ireland’s first choice 13 as he runs out to start his 11th straight Test since being left on the bench in the win over New Zealand.

Former Highlanders boss Joseph meanwhile has re-installed Christchurch native – and former Blackrock College player – Luke Thompson in his pack after the combative forward retired in the wake of the World Cup. His return is one of five changes to the forward line-up with Michael Leitch taking over the captaincy from the benched Shota Horie.

Ryohei Yamanaka and Michael Leitch with Jack Conan Ryohei Yamanaka and Michael Leitch try to get to grips with Jack Conan last weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In the back-line, Yu Tamura moves from out-half to form a centre partnership with Kotaro Matsushima – a pairing forced upon Joseph through the suspension of Will Tupou   (for a tip tackle on Toner) and injury to Tim Lafaele.  Jumpei Ogura, of Rob Penney’s NTT Communications, takes over the number 10 shirt.

The Brave Blossoms will be intent on building on what was a spirited finish last weekend, when they took advantage of an increasingly disjointed match to put the second half points totals at 19 apiece.

Playing in this expansive style though, Ireland leave no time to fear what the opposition are capable of. Instead, the superb solid stall set out by John Ryan, Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Rhys Ruddock will allow the brilliance of Jack Conan, Earls and a cavalry of more youthful faces to flourish again.

Only the kick-off time fails to inspire some giddy excitement.

Japan

15. Ryuji Noguchi (Tokai University)
14. Akihito Yamada (Panasonic Wild Knights)
13. Kotaro Matsushima (Suntory Sungoliath)
12. Yu Tamura (Canon Eagles)
11. Kenki Fukuoka (Panasonic Wild Knights)
10. Jumpei Ogura (NTT Communications)
9. Yutaka Nagare (Suntory Sungoliath)

1. Shintaro Ishihara (Suntory Sungoliath)
2. Yusuke Niwai (Canon Eagles)
3. Takuma Asahara (Toshiba Brave Lupus)
4. Luke Thompson (Kintetsu Liners)
5. Uwe Helu (Yamaha Jubilo)
6. Michael Leitch (Toshiba Brave Lupus) (Capt)
7. Shuhei Matsuhashi (Ricoh Black Rams)
8. Amanaki Lelei Mafi (NTT Communications)

Replacements:

16. Shota Horie (Panasonic Wild Knights)
17. Keita Inagaki (Panasonic Wild Knights)
18. Takayuki Watanabe (Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers)
19. Kotaro Yatabe (Panasonic Wild Knights)
20. Yoshitaka Tokunaga (Toshiba Brave Lupus)
21. Fumiaki Tanaka (Panasonic Wild Knights)
22. Rikiya Matsuda (Panasonic Wild Knights)
23. Ryohei Yamanaka (Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers)

Ireland

15. Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster)
14. Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
13. Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster)
12. Luke Marshall (Ballymena/Ulster)
11. Jacob Stockdale (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
10. Paddy Jackson (Dungannon/Ulster)
9. Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht)

1. Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
2. James Tracy (UCD/Leinster)
3. John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster)
4. Kieran Treadwell (Ballymena/Ulster)
5. Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster)
6. Rhys Ruddock (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) (Capt)
7. Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster)
8. Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster)

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell (Dolphin/Munster)
17. Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster)
18. Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster)
19. James Ryan (UCD/Leinster)
20. Sean Reidy (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
21. John Cooney (Connacht)
22. Rory Scannell (Dolphin/Munster)
23. Tiernan O’Halloran (Buccaneers/Connacht)

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Sean Farrell

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