WHILE THIS WAS one of the hardest Ireland selections to call in recent memory, injuries to Rob Kearney and Garry Ringrose did, at least, ease Joe Schmidt’s headache and force the head coach’s hand.
Kearney’s shoulder injury didn’t allow him to take a full part in training on Tuesday and that left him struggling to prove his fitness in time, while Ringrose hadn’t been involved in a squad session all week.
The Leinster centre sustained a hip knock in last Saturday’s win over Italy and that inability to train at Carton House ruled him out of the equation, meaning Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw renew their midfield combination.
Schmidt is confident of having both back for the clash against the All Blacks on Saturday week, reporting that Kearney ‘ran well’ earlier today having previously been under the supervision of the IRFU medics on the training paddock.
“They are both doing really well,” Schmidt said at this afternoon’s team announcement.
“Rob Kearney was involved in the session today and ran really well. Garry didn’t train Tuesday. At a pinch they could potentially play Saturday but we don’t want to go in to an Argentina Test match with a pinch.
“We want to have guys who are fully fit and ready and that gives us a little more time to make sure that Garry is able to train Monday in preparation for the following week.”
On Ringrose’s injury, the head coach continued: “He’s actually probably recovered from that mostly. At the start of the week you’re trying to make sure everything is as cohesive as possible. Particularly because we had to mix two different groups and on the back of that we only trained Tuesday, getting back again Monday morning from Chicago, we only trained Tuesday and Thursday.
“We want to maximise the time with guys who are fully fit an available and had run already on the Tuesday and the Thursday.”
Kearney’s absence has allowed Schmidt to continue with Jordan Larmour at fullback for Saturday’s Test against Argentina at the Aviva Stadium, as the 21-year-old makes his first home start in a green shirt.
Larmour’s astonishing form — he scored a hat-trick against Italy in Chicago this week — saw him edge out Will Addison and Andrew Conway for the starting position, the latter named as cover on the bench.
Henshaw was another option at fullback after he switched into the backfield for the final half hour of Leinster’s Pro14 victory over Benetton last month, after Kearney had gone off injured.
But any plans to deploy Henshaw at 15 were presumably scuppered by Ringrose’s injury, while Schmidt further explained that his lack of regular game time in the position means it’s not ‘our first option.’
“I wouldn’t have too much hesitation putting him back at 15, he’s got a lot of the attributes,” Schmidt said of Henshaw.
“It would be a very ad-hoc preparation for him to suddenly slot in at 15 on the back of a fairly short, late change playing away to Treviso I think it was for Leinster.
“In the last few years, he’s hasn’t had a lot of game-time there. I think you need a little bit of time to recalibrate if you are going to play in a position. Is there anyone more capable of recalibrating? Probably not too many.
“He’s a smart player and he’s committed to doing his preparation thoroughly enough that he probably would adjust really well. So, it is something that has been in the back of our minds for a long time as an option if we needed to go there.
“The one thing I would say is it’s probably not our first option and it’s not something that we’re going to necessarily suddenly default to with both Garry and Rob Kearney highly likely to be involved next week or highly likely to be available for selection at least.”
Above all, Larmour is more than deserving of another start after his performance in Chicago.
“You are always looking to make decisions and be proactive about offering opportunity but at the same time there are players who have earned a position in the team and somebody else has to come along and grab it off them,” Schmidt added.
“Those two [Larmour and Kearney] will probably continue to tussle when Rob’s available next week.
It very much is a step up [for Larmour], he’s given us confidence off the back of big Test matches where he’s come into the game late.
“In Twickenham he came on in the midfield and did a really good job. He came on in the third Test match against Australia and did a great job coming in at fullback and acquitted himself very well last week, both at fullback and when he shifted to the left wing so that versatility, that enthusiasm, he’s a ball of energy from back there.
“That gets other people energised and hopefully he can maintain that throughout the game and give Jordan some more confidence is what is building to be a really positive introduction to Test rugby so far.”
Overall, Schmidt has made 12 changes for Ireland’s second game of their autumnal programme, with Larmour, Aki and Jacob Stockdale the only players retained from Soldier Field, while the likes of Rory Best, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony return as expected.
Schmidt’s selection calls in the pack, where there are no injuries, are informative. James Ryan partners Iain Henderson in the second row, with Devin Toner held in reserve ahead of Tadhg Beirne, while Sean O’Brien is named in the back row for his first international appearance in 12 months.
It is the same pack that beat Argentina 28-9 in November last year, meaning there is no place for Beirne, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy or Jack Conan in the matchday squad, all of whom can feel unlucky after their showings at Soldier Field.
The omission of Beirne appears particularly harsh given his two-try performance against Italy on what was his first start, with Dan Leavy — having only joined up with the national squad last night after his trip to South Africa with Leinster — a surprise inclusion on the bench.
“Tadhg Beirne,” Schmidt said. “Again, we’re trying to manage his time a little. He had his first start last week, did really well and is certainly in the mix.
“But we had two fresh second rows as well. And we wanted to make sure that they were ready to be in the mix for next week. Effectively we’ll have had five second rows who have had an opportunity to put their hands up for three spots next week.
It is a bit mixing and matching, but at the same time we feel we’ve put a really good Test side out, and they are going to look to demonstrate that on Saturday evening.
As for scrum-half? Kieran Marmion, having played for Connacht last weekend, comes in to partner Sexton, with Luke McGrath dropping to the bench after getting his chance against Italy. Ulster’s John Cooney must bide his time for further opportunities after a cameo last week.
“I thought John Cooney was really good off the bench, so that was a headache and an elongated discussion for us,” Schmidt offered.
“But we thought Luke was probably more familiar with the environment and the level. So Luke is on the bench and you’re right about Kieran, he got some time last week and played well.
“He got a knock on the ankle and just missed two games in a row. So for him to be in the mix next week we felt he had to play this week. And also he is probably the experienced hand.
“He is the guy who, when we lost Conor [Murray] on the Thursday before playing England a couple of years ago, Kieran stepped straight in and did a great job.
“So he’s had the most experience, and he’s a great little player for us.”
Plenty of talking points, and with any team selection, plenty of winners and losers.
Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud
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