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Murray absent, new caps and more Ireland squad talking points

Will Addison, Sammy Arnold and Ross Byrne are in line for first caps, as Schmidt rewards early-season form.

WITH THE NOVEMBER internationals coming into sharp focus, Joe Schmidt this afternoon named his first Ireland squad of the season ahead of next week’s trip to Chicago to face Italy, and then home Tests against Argentina, New Zealand and USA.

Full details of Schmidt’s 42-man panel can be found here, and below we take a closer look at the head coach’s selection. 

Murray’s absence opens the door at nine

Having last played in Ireland’s third Test victory over Australia in June, Conor Murray’s continued unavailability with a neck injury means he is the headline absentee from Schmidt’s Autumn selection.

Kieran Marmion Kieran Marmion will look to add to his five Ireland starts next month. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Munster scrum-half has been sidelined for the first two months of the season with uncertainty over the extent of the problem raising concern over his long-term fitness, but his absence opens the door for Ireland’s other options at nine.

While Murray is expected to return to action in the coming weeks — perhaps in Munster’s Guinness Pro14 clash against Zebre in late November — his lack of game time meant Schmidt has has had to plan without the 29-year-old.

The loss of a player of his calibre is certainly a setback heading towards the much-anticipated clash with the All Blacks, but could also serve as a blessing in disguise with Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney now given a chance to stake their claim ahead of the World Cup.

Connacht nine Marmion is in pole position to deputise for Murray in those Tests against Argentina and New Zealand given he has been a consistent performer for Schmidt in recent seasons, regularly coming off the bench in the final stages of big games.

Of Marmion’s 22 caps, only five have been starts and having missed Connacht’s opening Challenge Cup fixtures with an ankle injury, will be keen to get into camp and prove his worth.

But opportunity will also knock for Leinster’s McGrath and Cooney of Ulster, the latter picking up where he left off last season with some standout displays for the northern province off the back of his second international appearance Down Under.

McGrath was left out of that touring party after he battled with injury during the second half of last season, and the former St Michael’s man will be keen to transfer his strong club form onto the international stage having won six caps to date.

Murray is undoubtedly Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half but this four-Test window will give Schmidt the chance to run the rule over his back-up options, and make a firm decision in his mind heading into 2019.   

New caps 

As is the case with any November squad, Schmidt will use the window to test the international credentials of a number of players who have impressed in the early weeks of the season, with Ulster’s Will Addison and Munster centre Sammy Arnold falling into this category.

Ross Byrne, meanwhile, is in line for his international debut after being an unused replacement in the third Test against Australia in Sydney. 

Will Addison Ulster's Addison has made an impressive start to the season. Source: Matthew Bunn/INPHO

In this World Cup cycle, Schmidt has used 75 players and handed Test debuts to 34 players since Ireland’s quarter-final exit to Argentina, with the Kiwi set to reward three further players this Autumn. 

Addison, a summer arrival from Sale Sharks, has made a bright start to life in Belfast and has been one of Ulster’s standout performers this term, proving to be a lively and dangerous operator in midfield.

His performance against Leicester Tigers in the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup will have certainly made Schmidt sit up and take notice, although the English-born back had already been on the coach’s radar having spent time in camp in Australia and at Carton House during the summer. 

The inclusion of Addison and Arnold adds to Schmidt’s options in midfield with the competition for places in that department particularly strong with Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Stuart McCloskey pushing for starting berths. Munster’s Chris Farrell remains a long-term absentee. 

Addison’s electric running game has caught the eye during his time with Ulster while his versatility in the backline [he has been used in midfield, on the wing and at fullback by Dan McFarland] could be useful in a World Cup squad. 

As for Munster’s Arnold, the 22-year-old is rewarded for his early-season form with a first call-up and with the expectation that Schmidt will leave a number of frontline players out of next week’s trip to Chicago, the likes of Addison and Arnold could be in line for an early opportunity. 

Strength in depth

As we reach the three-quarter juncture in this World Cup cycle, Schmidt will have the majority of his squad for Japan nailed on, with this Autumn block providing the final window for experimentation before Ireland’s Six Nations defence in February.

Sean O’Brien Sean O'Brien is in line for his first international in 12 months. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

While 10 months out from the campaign opener against Scotland, today’s announcement gives some indication into Schmidt’s thinking for the tournament, with the head coach springing no real surprises.

Murray’s omission aside, Ireland are in rude health heading into the November Tests and, as mentioned, in some respects the scrum-half’s absence is not a bad thing in the context of building towards the World Cup.

Similarly, it will be important for Joey Carbery to see game time at 10 after hitting the ground running since his relocation to Munster, with Johnny Sexton expected to be rested for the meeting with Conor O’Shea’s Italy at Soldier Field.

The 22-year-old could also be in line to start against USA, but Byrne is also in the frame as he waits to win his first cap.

“As always there have been a number of close calls in selection, meaning that some very good players have missed out in this particular window,” Schmidt said. 

The selection debate in midfield and in the back row are particularly intriguing. Schmidt might seek consistency with the Henshaw-Ringrose axis, but Aki’s performances during last year’s Six Nations and summer tour will be hard to ignore in Monday morning selection meetings.

Addison and Arnold have leapfrogged Munster’s Rory Scannell in the midfield pecking order, while Dan Goggin suffered a serious knee injury during the southern province’s win over Gloucester at the weekend

McCloskey, having featured last November to win his second cap, is recalled while Darren Sweetnam and Finlay Bealham are also added to the panel from the tour to Australia. 

As well as Scannell, Connacht’s Tom Farrell can consider himself unfortunate to miss out given he has excelled for the western province in the last 12 months, emerging as a real force for Andy Friend’s side. 

In the back row, Schmidt has a plethora of options. The return to fitness of Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier adds to the competition, with no fewer than eight players vying for the three starting berths, while Rory Best is back to captain the side, although the Ulster hooker faces competition from Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell and Rob Herring.

All in all, it’s a good position to be in. 

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Ryan Bailey

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