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Audition night beckons for new hopefuls as Farrell looks to a new era

Ireland play the US Eagles at the Aviva Stadium this evening with one eye on the future.

Robert Baloucoune makes his debut tonight.
Robert Baloucoune makes his debut tonight.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

TWENTY ONE YEARS have passed since that March afternoon. Yet it doesn’t feel that way, the hat-trick of tries etched in the memory.

There was the dart under the posts from Malcolm O’Kelly’s pass; the smart line he ran to connect with Rob Henderson’s offload for his second try; the pick-up-and-go for his third.

The day changed Brian O’Driscoll’s life. And for Irish rugby, that sunny Sunday in Paris was when the good times began.

At the time no one believed they’d last. Ireland, after all, had finished last or second last in each of the previous 12 Five Nations seasons. But a golden generation had emerged, a core of players who turned a mediocre team into a winning one.

When they all eventually grew old, a new cohort had arrived, boosted by a couple of smart administrative decisions, and the fortunate presence of Joe Schmidt, one of the game’s best ever coaches.

Now Schmidt has gone and so have three of his leaders: Rory Best, Rob Kearney and CJ Stander. More to the point, at some point in the short to medium term, another five – Sexton, Healy, Earls, O’Mahony and Murray – will join them, time being the one opponent a player can never beat.

In this respect, and with a further 11 key players missing, including the Irish Lions that are in South Africa, Ireland go into the final game (against USA, kick-off 7.15pm, RTE2) of this marathon season with a completely new look.

At least four players in Farrell’s 23 man squad will make their debut – a number that could stretch to eight if the bench is emptied. Additionally you have 12 of the starting XV who are aged 25 or under. In other words, what we’re seeing today is the future, a succession plan to keep the Irish national team competitive at the top level.

Can Gavin Coombes fill the void left by Stander? Is Joey Carbery the one to inherit Sexton’s crown? Is Craig Casey the player to take over from Murray? Is Ryan Baird as good as we all think? Can Robert Baloucoune add depth to Ireland’s options in the back-three? Is Tom O’Toole as impressive in the scrum as he is around the park?

joey-carbery Carbery has another chance tonight. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Not all of those questions will be answered over 80 minutes. But the US Eagles provided England with a tough enough test last weekend to suggest they won’t just be coming to Dublin to be tourists.

“We can all see they’re a side that’s going to be physical,” said Farrell. “Set-piece wise they want to compete hard and we need to make sure that we’re disciplined.

“We need to make sure, like I said last week, that we respect ourselves in how we’re going to play. This is a game of rugby, this isn’t touch rugby.

“You see from last week’s performance that the US have got strong ball carriers in the forwards, and they’ve got dynamic backs that can rip you apart, so we don’t want to get sloppy with our performance.

“I think what was pretty impressive about our performance last week was that we managed to stay calm, to stay next task focused, and that got us through in the end. It’s more of the same this time.”

In this respect the presence of three older heads, Stuart McCloskey at inside centre, Andrew Conway on the wing, Dave Kilcoyne in the front row, will help, McCloskey relishing the chance to be a leader, even though he has only five caps to his name.

andrew-conway Conway is one of the team's older heads. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The thing we have to get ready for is the fact that defensively, they will come pretty hard off the line at us; they’ll be coming to get us,” McCloskey said.

“England beat them by 14 points last week; that is not terrible by any stretch. We’ll need to get off to a good start.”

The way they’re talking, the result is the big thing. Yet the bigger goal has to be unearthing new stars. “If we can get three, four, five gems out of this, guys who can add to our squad, well we’ll be delighted by that,” said Farrell.

Why stop at five? Of the 15 players selected for the match-day 23 who have five caps or fewer to their name, at least ten have the capacity to hit the quarter-century mark before they retire. One of those is debutant, James Hume.

“When I got into the squad initially, my intention was simple,” Hume said. “I just really wanted to make a good impression, to show that I want to be there for the long run, to be  under strong consideration in the future.”

There’s only one way for him – and the other newbies – to do that. You earn a coach’s trust with your performance and your attitude. From what he has to say, Hume certainly ticks one of those boxes.

“During lockdown, I really tried to do focus on what I was actually doing and not just drift through the seasons and just be happy at where I’m at, because unfortunately that’s how I felt through those first couple of seasons with Ulster when I was just going through the motions, happy to be playing here or there.

“And then during lockdown, it was about focusing on what I really wanted to be doing. And that was starting 13 for Ulster. Being a big name on the team sheet. Playing for Ireland. And that’s when I kind of knuckled down; really put my head down when I came back after lockdown.

“Firstly, I wanted to get a run of games with no injuries because that was the problem before. So when I started getting over seven, eight or nine games then it gathered momentum and started to go really well. So that was a really positive side for me.

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“I don’t know if necessarily there was a light bulb moment really. It was just time for me to make a step up. A lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes.”

Today is a reward for that, although Farrell has already laid out a challenge to all this squad. “It’s up to them to say, right let’s come back again, let’s get back in the room, let’s move from one cap to five; from five to 25. That’s what we’re looking for,” said the Ireland coach.

That, more than any scoreline, is the result we’re all looking for today.

Ireland (v USA):

15. Hugo Keenan (UCD/Leinster)
14. Robert Baloucoune (Enniskillen/Ulster)
13. James Hume (Banbridge/Ulster)
12. Stuart McCloskey (Bangor/Ulster)
11. Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster)
10. Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Munster)
9. Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster)

1. Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster)
2. Ronan Kelleher (Lansdowne/Leinster)
3. Tom O’Toole (Ballynahinch/Ulster)
4. Ryan Baird (Dublin University/Leinster)
5. James Ryan (UCD/Leinster – captain)
6. Caelan Doris (St Mary’s College/Leinster)
7. Nick Timoney (Banbridge/Ulster)
8. Gavin Coombes (Young Munster/Munster)

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan (Buccaneers/Connacht)
17. Ed Byrne (UCD/Leinster)
18. Finlay Bealham (Buccaneers/Connacht)
19. Fineen Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster)
20. Paul Boyle (Buccaneers/Connacht)
21. Caolin Blade (Galwegians/Connacht)
22. Harry Byrne (Lansdowne/Leinster)
23. Will Addison (Enniskillen/Ulster)

US EAGLES

Mike Te’o (Utah Warriors); Christian Dyer Wing (USA Sevens), Calvin Whiting (Utah Warriors), Bryce Campbell (Austin Gilgronis, capt), Mika Kruse (Utah Warriors), Luke Carty (LA Giltinis), Ruben de Haas (Austin Gilgronis), David Ainu’u (Toulouse), Joe Taufete’e (Lyon), Paul Mullen (Utah Warriors), Gregory Peterson (Newcastle Falcons). Nick Civetta (Rugby United New York), Hanco Germishuys (Rugby United New York), Riekert Hattingh (Seattle Seawolves), Cam Dolan (NOLA Gold).

Replacements: Kapeli Pifeleti (Saracens), Matt Harmon (NOLA Gold), Dino Waldren (NOLA Gold), Nate Brakeley (Rugby United New York), Psalm Wooching (San Diego Legion), Andrew Guerra (NOLA Gold), Michael Baska (Utah Warriors), Will Magie (Austin).

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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