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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

McGrath's scrum-half nod, Larmour's shot at 15 and Ireland's back row ballast

With Joe Schmidt naming an experimental team, opportunity knocks at Soldier Field.

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

JOE SCHMIDT HAS named his matchday 23 for Ireland’s clash with Italy at Soldier Field in Chicago on Saturday [KO 8pm, eir Sport].

Check out the team and replacements here

McGrath gets shot in 9 shirt

While Ireland have put the cat amongst the Kiwi pigeons in refusing to rule Conor Murray out of a possible return from injury against the All Blacks on 17 November, this month is still going to be about adding depth at scrum-half.

Luke McGrath McGrath partners Joey Carbery in the halfbacks. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Murray and Kieran Marmion are back home in Ireland, leaving Luke McGrath and John Cooney to gain valuable exposure against the Italians.

McGrath gets the starting shot at Soldier Field, having strung together consistently good form for Leinster over the last year. There was a dip against Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup two weekends ago, but the 25-year-old is in a confident place.

His passing has become more consistent, although there is still some work to do, while McGrath’s box-kicking has improved vastly and his off-the-ball support running is exceptional. McGrath will hope to make life easier for out-half Joey Carbery, who has an interesting weekend ahead

As McGrath wins cap number six in the starting team, Cooney is set to make his third appearance for Ireland off the bench, having started the season superbly for Ulster and shown his ever-growing tactical maturity.

Murray may yet return, while Marmion appears to still be second in line at nine, but opportunity beckons for McGrath and Cooney. 

Beirne to continue his growth

Given his stature as one of the finest players in European rugby – earned with Scarlets and furthered in the past month with Munster in the Heineken Cup – it’s rather odd to think that Tadhg Beirne still only has two Ireland caps.

Tadhg Beirne out on the court Beirne attempted a shot during a time-out in the Chicago Bulls' game last night. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His debut came in Australia in June, with the Kildare man making two fine appearances off the bench, his cameo in the third Test being particularly impressive.

A starting role is very different, however, particularly given that the set-piece will be of paramount importance for Ireland against the Italians.

Despite recently moving into the role of lineout calling with Munster, performing the task superbly in difficult conditions against Exeter before there were malfunctions in the province’s lineout early on against Gloucester, Beirne hasn’t been handed that responsibility on Saturday.

Still, Beirne’s experience in Australia – he was glued to the computers by all accounts – will be helpful in him looking to contribute to a set-piece that is pivotal to Ireland’s success. Beirne’s brilliance around the pitch is well-known.

Alongside him in the second row, Quinn Roux gets his seventh Ireland cap and will be planning to build on his excellent form for Connacht so far this season.

The 27-year-old is hitting harder than ever in defence, has been strong at lineout and maul time and simply looks more motivated than ever. 

Larmour’s opportunity at fullback

The 21-year-old fullback would be the first to admit that he still has much to learn, but his prodigious ability with ball in hand is exciting for Ireland.

Jordan Larmour Larmour played at 15 for Leinster against Toulouse. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Already a Grand Slam winner, having contributed off the bench three times during this year’s Six Nations, Larmour is now handed a place in Ireland’s starting team for the first time.

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He is also given the responsibility of controlling the backfield at fullback, from where Schmidt will also hope to see Larmour’s attacking skills flourish.

Rob Kearney has many strengths, lots of them under-appreciated, but Larmour’s individual ability on the ball could add another dimension for Ireland, particularly in how they return kicks and attack on turnover possession.

Having done a good job off the bench at fullback in the third Test against Australia in the summer, winning a couple of important contests, Larmour will back himself to make a difference in a back three that also includes Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale.

Conway was unlucky to be injured while scoring early in the second Test against Australia, so will be motivated, while Ulsterman Stockdale will look to continue his sensational try-scoring feats for Ireland.

Back row ballast

Schmidt’s options in the back row are eye-watering even when taking into account another injury for the incredibly unlucky Tommy O’Donnell.

Rhys Ruddock Rhys Ruddock captains the team from the blindside. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The returns to fitness of Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Sean O’Brien early this season for Leinster have been welcome, with the first two of that trio starting on Saturday against Italy.

Ruddock and van der Flier are joined in the back row by Jack Conan, who has been dynamic and impactful for his province but probably feels Schmidt has yet to see the best of him in green.

Ruddock takes over the captaincy again, having led Ireland in the US and Japan in 2017, as well as against Fiji last November, and will be keen to begin making up for missing out on the Grand Slam and Australia tour last season.

Van der Flier, meanwhile, has started the campaign like a train for Leinster, looking in better shape than ever, while also appearing to have added a few subtle strings to his bow while recovering from his ACL surgery. 

Jordi Murphy provides the bench cover this weekend and is a proven favourite of Schmidt’s, having consistently delivered for the Ireland boss. 

The intriguing race for back row spots in Ireland’s World Cup squad moves up another gear this weekend. 

Niall Scannell starts at hooker

Centrally-contracted Rory Best remains Ireland’s first-choice hooker, but this season was always going to be fascinating given the competition behind him.

Niall Scannell Niall Scannell starts at hooker for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Niall Scannell, who impressed in his two starts in Australia, is given the chance to underline his ever-growing quality against Italy on Saturday, starting in between Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter in the front row. 

Scannell’s set-piece strength is a big plus for him, with Schmidt having previously lauded the Munster man’s scrum work and his lineout throwing showing up particularly well in the aforementioned clash with Exeter.

Sean Cronin provides the back-up on the bench against Italy, seemingly destined to remain an impact player for Ireland.

The Limerick man was unfortunate to have to pull out of starting the third Test in Australia at a late stage due to injury, leaving him looking to make up ground on Scannell.

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud


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Murray Kinsella

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