Updated Oct 17th 2018, 9:49 PM
WHILE ALL EYES will be on the European club rugby again this weekend, the November Tests will rapidly come into view in Ireland next week.
Joe Schmidt is set to name his squad for the upcoming games against Italy, Argentina, the All Blacks and the US on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, allowing him one final view of some of his options over the coming days.
The Ireland head coach will already have his mind made up on most positions in a squad of around 35 players, but this weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup action provides the last audition for those final few spots.
The majority of Schmidt’s squad is likely to be similar to the group he brought on the three-Test tour of Australia in June.
Schmidt said back in August that there was possibly room for a bolter to emerge over the course of this season, while underlining that he has capped quite a few new players – 34 to be exact – since the last World Cup.
With that figure in mind, blooding a swathe of fresh faces isn’t necessary for Schmidt over the coming year, rather fine-tuning his selection and allowing them to build up even more familiarity, cohesion and confidence.
Leinster’s Ross Byrne, who was on the bench for the final Test in Australia but didn’t come on for his debut, seems like a good bet to make his international bow next month, given his strong start to the season and, particularly, his performance against Munster two weekends ago in the Pro14.
Further exposing players like twice-capped Tadhg Beirne, Jordan Larmour [six caps], and eight-times capped Andrew Porter may be part of the plan for November too, particularly given that Ireland face 14th-ranked Italy and 15th-ranked USA.
Schmidt never takes any opposition lightly and will prepare as assiduously as ever for each November Test, but those games look like his final chance to build a little more depth in terms of the international experience of some of his players – with the Grand Slam defence next year no place for that.
As such, it looks like Schmidt will leave a handful of his biggest names at home for the trip to Chicago to face Italy on 3 November, bringing with him a combination of front-liners and players who have been pushing the front-liners over the past year.
Johnny Sexton may be among those to remain in Ireland and it would make sense for Schmidt to give one of Joey Carbery or Byrne the opportunity to boss the team for a full training week and during the Test match itself.
With Argentina enjoying something of a revival under Mario Ledesma, Ireland will go full-on for their second November fixture back in Dublin, before the eagerly-anticipated meeting with the All Blacks on 17 November.
The US – who will, unfortunately, be missing Dublin native AJ MacGinty – are the final opposition in a busy month for Schmidt’s squad.
Even with the likelihood of a large degree of continuity, Ireland’s squad announcement next week will be interesting.
The battle for back row spots is as intense as ever, perhaps even more so with Josh van der Flier, Tommy O’Donnell and Rhys Ruddock among the players who have returned from injuries and shown good form.
Whether Conor Murray will be involved next month remains to be seen, but if he is still sidelined, Schmidt has three in-form scrum-halves in Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath.
If Murray does make it, picking the odd one out of the aforementioned trio is no easy task.
Elsewhere in the backline options, the good impression Will Addison has made with Ulster is sure to have pleased Schmidt, who has long been a fan of the former Sale Sharks captain.
Capable of playing at fullback, centre or on the wing, the 26-year-old’s versatility could be handy in a 31-man World Cup squad.
The fact that Addison trained with Ireland in Australia during the summer and again in Carton House in August bodes well for his prospects.
The second row is of interest too and Schmidt’s options are strong. James Ryan, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson are certainties, while Beirne’s impact at Munster has underlined his quality, but the form of Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane at Connacht has surely been noticed too.
At hooker, Rob Herring’s toe injury was unfortunately timed and could leave Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin offering options behind captain Rory Best.
Finlay Bealham has hit excellent form and physical condition at Connacht to challenge Porter and John Ryan in the tighthead slots alongside Tadhg Furlong, while loosehead is always competitive too. Indeed, most positions are for Ireland these days.
Even if the European rugby weekend doesn’t change Schmidt’s mind in terms of squad selection, the Ireland boss would welcome another positive round of performances from the four provinces ahead of what should be an enthralling November Test series.
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