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Dublin: 3°C Thursday 3 December 2020

Schmidt excited to see how the depth chart holds up in 'acid test' against Fiji

Ireland’s head coach is counting down the matches before the 2019 World Cup, and he knows there are not many more chances to experiment.

AMID ALL THE talk of 2023 this week, it was momentarily easy to overlook the World Cup staring us in the face from less than two years away.

We don’t tend to buy in to four-year cycles in these parts. The Six Nations is too important to unions, supporters and players alike to be written off to blooding young prospects. Besides, we’ve always had some painful World Cup scabs to pick at and facing down our nearest and dearest can be an extremely satisfying itch to scratch.

Two years out from a World Cup though, this is a time to be putting the ducks in a row and installing the kind of depth and Plan Bs that could help smooth over even injury tolls as savage Cardiff 2015.

Richie Murphy and Joe Schmidt Richie Murphy and Joe Schmidt track one of the up-and-unders we can see Dave Kearney, Darren Sweetnam and Andrew Conway chase this weekend. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The 13 changes made by Joe Schmidt to his team to face Fiji tomorrow (kick-off 17.30) leaves him with a grand total of 188 caps to start the Test – and almost half of those belong to Devin Toner and Jack McGrath.

This is no meek selection, there is talent in spades. But potential is of little use at World Cups, so it’s past time the talent was iron-clad with Test match grit and nous.

“Every one is incredibly precious because you don’t get that many opportunities,” Schmidt said yesterday as he whittled the pre-World Cup Test count down to 18, with precious few of them against tier two opponents where he feels comfortable taking a risk.

The position with the greatest scope for creating viable understudies or even competition is at half-back. So even though it’s Chris Farrell who is this week’s debutant, all eyes are on Joey Carbery as he pulls on the number 10 jersey for the first time this season.

“We don’t necessarily have many windows for Joey to accelerate his learning so this is an opportunity for us to try and accelerate that as best we can,” Schmidt says of the 22-year-old.

“He has played almost 450 minutes of competitive rugby this year but that has all been at fullback. For him, the time the space of this match, it tightens the whole thing up and for him to move from 15 to 10 it tightens the whole thing up a lot further.

“It is going to be a tough day at the office for joey and we want to see how he negotiates that really.

Joey CarberySource: Bryan Keane/INPHO

"A lot of it is even on the training ground because he has just played six minutes of competitive rugby at number 10, I think we are asking a lot of him. The comforting thing is he is he takes a lot on himself and he wants to be as good as he can be. If you put yourself under pressure you find out a little bit more about yourself and you learn about yourself."

Aside from the positional shift putting the squeeze on Carbery then, Schmidt isn't so concerned that the Athy man has been plying his trade at fullback for Leinster since early this year. The head coach is content to use this window to balance up the jersey time for a man he views as a prodigious natural athlete and talent. What seems to excite the Kiwi most though, is Carbery's growth into a dominant presence behind the pack.

One of the things I'd say about Joey is that he's got great balance, unbelievably good balance. He can look like he's gliding and then suddenly step, go and he doesn't seem to miss a beat. He's got really polished passing skills and his kicking skills have really come on and on in leaps and bounds.

"I know he got a bit of a tough time in the USA and some of the feedback he got, but not so much internally. Internally, we were happy that when he decided to kick there was the space, but it got closed down very quickly and he'll learn from that hopefully.

'That's tough for a kid'

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"Because there were a lot of things in that game that he did that were really good; they were things like directing other players, controlling the game. Because those are the really big things and difficult things to do when you first come in especially as a young 10.

"You've got experienced players who have been there a lot longer than you have, you're telling Cian Healy: 'Cian, get that, do that, be where I need you'. That's tough for a kid and Joey's built that confidence through that tour.

"Unfortunately, it was curtailed by injury which was a real disappointment for us because we felt that was a fantastic window and that's one of the reasons that we're very keen to get him out there and have him starting this week because the last time we tried to give him a really good window and maybe a little bit of continuity of starting and directing the side unfortunately that didn't work out for us."

Schmidt's dig for depth isn't limited to 10, of course. Out-halves just dominate the discussion that way.

Tomorrow will bring a first start for Andrew Porter at tighthead and Rob Herring at hooker. There is a second start a relative regular around Carton House Ultan Dillane, the return from the cold of Stuart McCloskey after one cap in Twickenham.

There's a serious Aviva Stadium match for Jack Conan to get his teeth into two years after making his debut in a pre-World Cup warm-up and Andrew Conway, having just made his international debut in March, will start a fourth consecutive international as he gets sized up to deputise for Rob Kearney should those hamstrings fail him again.

Stuart McCloskey and Joey Carbery Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

"We are trying to build resilience for all our players and we are also trying to build that next player through.

"You can't build them though unless they have had the acid test, the opportunities to put themselves in and learn from it.

"We know (Carbery) will be better for the experience. Will he be good enough on the day? We would love him to be and he is keen to be and he has worked hard to be.

"So it will be... it is always a fine balance and we try to find the balance as best we can."

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason's, or order it here today (€10):

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