Down Under

'There’s a greater goal in mind' - Schmidt looking to trial things in Australia

The Ireland head coach is keen for his team to keeping winning but sees this tour as a chance to try new things.

THOUGH A TEST series in Australia will not be taken lightly, the next three weeks provide Joe Schmidt’s Ireland with the chance to try a few things.

The World Cup is just 15 months away and in between the three upcoming clashes with the Wallabies and the global tournament, Ireland will face great challenges like welcoming the All Blacks back to Dublin in November and defending their Six Nations title next year.

Australia is an opportunity for Schmidt to learn more about a few players and a few combinations.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt at Ireland training in Carton House on Thursday. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Are Tadhg Beirne and Ross Byrne ready for Test rugby? How would Joey Carbery fare if given a full Test alongside future Munster team-mate Conor Murray?

Is the back three of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale set in stone or can someone like Jordan Larmour break up their first-choice status? Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, or Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw?

Those are some of the questions that might have been in Schmidt’s thoughts as Ireland flew to Brisbane yesterday, arriving a week out from the opening Test at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday 9 June.

“We want to make sure this tour is another building block for what comes in the future,” said Schmidt before Ireland departed.

“We’re going to have a big target on our forehead for [the Six Nations] next year and then obviously beyond that the really big tournament which follows in September and October is the World Cup.

“We don’t have too many options to trial things between now and then. This will be an opportunity to do some of that.

“It’s going to be incredibly tough and that’s when you find out about players in those situations – how do they cope, what growth can we get out of this tour to make sure that we’re on a slightly stronger footing when it comes to playing Italy in Chicago [in November].”

While Schmidt is keen to try a few new things and learn about players he feels he knows less about right now, the Ireland head coach still holds that always-present fear of failure.

Michael Cheika can call on superb players like Isreal Folau, Kurtley Beale, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Reece Hodge and Sekope Kepu, meaning Schmidt is wary.

Peter OÕMahony, Paddy Jackson and Ultan Dillane with Israel Folau Folau will be as dangerous as ever. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

He declined to state a specific target for the series, instead underlining Australia’s quality.

“I’d never put a number on anything because I’m probably number-averse a little bit but I tell you one number which is pretty impressive: 23-18, the last time they played in the Suncorp Stadium against the All Blacks [last October].

“I think they’re probably the only team since we beat them in Chicago to have beaten the All Blacks [apart from the Lions]. That’s a feather in their cap.

“Watching that game back a couple of times, their ability to turn defence into attack, their ability to attack through multiple phases at real tempo with athletes that are very difficult to contain, you need to be numbered-up incredibly well.

“So with all those challenges, I think there’s a real excitement within the group at trying to make sure we can foot it with some of what they deliver.”

In terms of his own squad, Schmidt said that all of his players are “in contention” to feature in the first Test, although he did add that some would need to prove their fitness at Ireland’s team training session on Tuesday.

Robbie Henshaw, Iain Henderson and Bundee Aki are among the players who have been carrying injuries, but Ireland should be in fine health for the opening clash with the Wallabies.

Even if Henderson wasn’t to make it in the second row, Schmidt has fine options to choose from in James Ryan, Devin Toner, Beirne and Quinn Roux.

Schmidt admitted that there’s “a small risk for us with just the three midfielders” in his squad, although he said that Larmour had “acquitted himself” off the bench at outside centre in the Grand Slam-sealing win over England in March, while also mentioning Keith Earls as a possibility to “move in from the exterior.”

Jordan Larmour with Jonny May Larmour was an outside centre when Schmidt first saw him playing in St. Andrew's College. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland’s depth does look good and Schmidt name-checked Sammy Arnold, Rory Scannell, Stuart McCloskey and Rhys Ruddock as being among those unlucky to miss out on touring as Ireland limited their squad to 32 players.

“You even lose guys like Josh van der Flier, you have Sean O’Brien unavailable, and yet you’ve got a couple of guys who really came through in the Six Nations,” said Schmidt.

“The likes of Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy’s had a really strong end to the season, Tadhg Beirne as a guy that can play at lock and number six – yeah, you do start to think, ‘Wow’.

“It drives the players because there’s competition for places and if someone decides to just ease up a little bit they know they can’t really afford to internally, and we know playing the Australians that they can’t do it externally.”

Schmidt enthused about the quality of the recent fixtures involving Irish provinces, the Leinster v Saracens and Munster v Toulon clashes in particular, stressing how important those games are for building depth for Ireland.

Leinster’s double success will naturally lend Ireland momentum in the coming weeks although they already had plenty of that from the Grand Slam success and their current run of 12 wins in a row.

On the other hand, Australia’s Super Rugby teams haven’t been impressive this year. Schmidt, however, doesn’t see it as reflective of what the Wallabies will offer.

“I was talking to a Tier 1 coach recently who said that there is a whole different flavour to the Wallabies, as opposed to their Super Rugby sides,” said Schmidt.

“And when you look the sum of the parts once they do come together, the actual parts are fantastic. It’s probably just the depth that they have to spread amongst those teams.

“I think 11 of that squad that’s been named played in the World Cup final. You don’t suddenly get bad and become incapable of playing at a really, really high level if you’ve got that sort of quality about you.”

Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony Vice-captains Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony will step up. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

On the experience front, Ireland have lost their captain in Rory Best, the Ulster man prevented from travelling due to a hamstring injury.

Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony are set to share the captaincy between Tests depending on how Schmidt selects his teams, while Munster’s Niall Scannell comes into the squad to compete with the in-form Sean Cronin and Ulster hooker Rob Herring.

Even with the loss of their captain, though, Ireland look in good shape to push for a series success and allow Schmidt to learn important lessons with the World Cup firmly in view.

“There’s a few things that we put in place that revolve around Rory because he has a certain amount of gravitas in the group,” said Schmidt of losing his skipper.

“You feel a little bit destabilised as a result of that but that’s only one guy, even though it’s late in the day, but what a fantastic opportunity for Niall Scannell, that’s the way we’d look at it.

“Whatever happens in Australia, I think we can get growth out of it. And if it is that someone gets shown that they need to learn more, that they need to understand more, that’s a good investment for us.

“We only get 12 shots [Tests] at this a year and I suppose the last 12 have gone particularly well results-wise and you’d love that to continue but there’s a greater goal in mind.

“It wouldn’t be often I’d say that but at the same time what’s right in front of our nose is going to be incredibly tough. Once we land there, that greater goal goes out the window. It will be all about what we can achieve in Suncorp.”

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