JOE SCHMIDT ADMITS he and his coaching staff ‘aren’t particularly comfortable’ with the tough selection decisions they’ve been forced to make already in this November Test window, but knows it is that competition which continues to drive the group forward.
The Ireland head coach’s headache was eased by injuries to Rob Kearney and Garry Ringrose this week, but even still there were a number of elongated selection conversations at Carton House over the last number of days.
Schmidt’s selection for Saturday’s clash against Argentina was largely as expected, with the senior players who rested up last weekend returning, and Kieran Marmion rewarded with an opportunity at scrum-half in the absence of Conor Murray.
But even then there were interesting calls to make in the second row and back row, where Schmidt ultimately had to sit a number of players — including Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier — down to tell them they weren’t going to be involved this weekend.
Beirne’s brilliance in Chicago wasn’t enough to see him retain his place in the second row, or secure a berth on the bench, with Schmidt opting for what appears to be his first-choice pairing of James Ryan and Iain Henderson. Devin Toner, meanwhile, provides the cover.
Van der Flier can consider himself unfortunate, too. There was no suggestion the Leinster flanker was injured, so it seems Dan Leavy — although late into camp this week — has been offered an opportunity by Schmidt after his powerful performances during the Six Nations.
Kearney’s shoulder injury made the selection picture at fullback clearer as Jordan Larmour continues in the number 15 jersey as one of only three players retained from last week, while Ringrose’s absence meant Schmidt had a straightforward decision to make in midfield, redeploying the Bundee Aki-Robbie Henshaw combination.
While certainly problematic, these difficult selection calls are a measure of the remarkable strength in depth Schmidt has developed since the last World Cup having used 77 different players during this cycle, 36 of whom have been debutants.
All things considered, the Kiwi was asked if he felt Ireland are on track ahead of next year’s tournament in Japan.
“I’d never describe anything as being on track, because there are so many variables between now and then that can upset what we’re currently doing,” he said at this afternoon’s press conference at Carton House.
“Are we currently comfortable with where we’re at? We’re never comfortable. And you’ve almost got to be resigned to the fact that you’re never going to be totally comfortable, because there’s a couple of positions where we’d like to have more depth.
“There’s a couple of positions where we’ve got good depth and we’re not particularly comfortable week to week making decisions because we know there’s some really good players who are going to be disappointed.
“But we know that drives that group forward, and that’s exactly what we want from them.
“So, post-Saturday, I’d like to think that we can look at things and be more comfortable either that we’ve put something together or that we’ve got a few more things we’ve learned that we can put together for the following week and the weeks beyond it.”
You would imagine the things Schmidt will be looking at on Saturday are Marmion’s performance at scrum-half, Larmour’s big audition in the back field and whether Seán O’Brien is primed to start against the All Blacks.
In Murray’s absence — and the Munster scrum-half is now unlikely to make a miraculous comeback against the world champions — this is a huge chance for Connacht’s Marmion, who will win his 23rd cap against the Pumas.
Only five of those have been starts but Marmion is a tried and trusted Schmidt player having been a virtual ever-present around Carton House since his debut back in 2014, and the head coach pointed to his performance against England two years ago as a sign of the 26-year-old’s ability to deputise in the nine jersey.
Larmour, meanwhile, appears to be in a straight battle with Kearney for a starting berth against the All Blacks and has a big opportunity to stake his claim on the occasion of his first home start.
It is a big step-up for the 21-year-old but he has relished every challenge in his burgeoning career to date, seizing every opportunity with key and impressive involvements since his debut against Italy in last year’s Six Nations.
He will be tested defensively by Argentina, with Schmidt expecting his counterpart Mario Ledesma to come up with a ‘cunning plan’ for Saturday’s rematch in Dublin, pointing to the inclusion of lock Guido Petti in the back row.
Schmidt coached Ledesma during the pair’s time at Clermont, and the Ireland boss isn’t surprised the former hooker has transitioned into coaching.
“He was already coaching, he was already contributing [at Clermont],” he added.
“He was a smart player who is a good manager of people.
“I think he had a lot of the attributes. If Vern [Cotter] wasn’t there I would always defer to Mario to drive the pack, mainly because I couldn’t speak to them because of my hackneyed French phrases, and I had a limitation that was mostly backs-related.
“So he’s already done an incredible job in broadening his own experiences. At international level he was involved with the Wallabies, he’s been involved with Jaguares, with a pretty decent upsurge in their performances.
“And very much an upsurge since the June series with the national team. So I think he’s already compiled some good success which will give him confidence, which will give him confidence, and certainly I know he’s got the confidence of the players.
“Knowing Mario there will be some cunning plan to it, and we’ll have to probably decipher it on the run, once we’ve kicked off on Saturday.”
Ireland’s alternative XV: 15. Will Addison, 14. Andrew Conway, 13. Sammy Arnold, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Darren Sweetnam , 10. Joey Carbery, 9. Luke McGrath; 1. Jack McGrath, 2. Niall Scannell, 3. Andrew Porter, 4. Devin Toner, 5. Tadhg Beirne, 6. Rhys Ruddock, 7. Josh van der Flier, 8. Jack Conan.
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