OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR the 15 Joe Schmidt will unleash to face Fiji this evening (kick-off 17.30).
Though there is definite excitement with the arrival of the Pacific nation, with Japan 2019 coming onto the distant horizon, this week’s opposition has also brought the feel of a midway refuelling point for Ireland during this November series.
The gears were moved through with assured style against the Springboks last weekend and the recognised front-line internationals will be primed to fire on all cylinders again when Argentina show up with a demeanour very different from their World Cup swagger seven days from now.
This, the in-between stage of the series, means blooding some lesser-tapped talent, experimentation, trials and hopefully not too much error.
These are not necessarily the key words that were on the tip of Rhys Ruddock’s tongue after yesterday’s captain’s run however. Instead, he leaned on ‘confidence’ and the preparation that fuels it.
“My message is to be confident in the group,” says Ruddock, captaining his country for the fourth time.
“We haven’t played much together, but the way things have gone gives us great confidence that we can go out and be the team that you saw last weekend.
“Everything we have done to this point has been great, but the real challenge is under the lights tomorrow against the opposition we have and putting into practice what we’ve done all week on the bigger stage.”
Among the aspects that will come under scrutiny under the Lansdowne Road floodlights will be a back-line that counts Kieran Marmion and Dave Kearney as its most experienced members, a low bar to clear given they are the only men with more than five caps worth of experience to their name.
In midfield, powerful Ulster natives Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey have taken very different roads to this point, but arrive with just one cap between them – though they’re clearly plenty big enough to look after themselves in the Test arena.
Ruddock perfectly fits the lead-by-example archetype and that makes his captaincy a smooth transition from Rory Best. And before he really puts the shoulder to the wheel this evening, much of that example has been set by leading the squad to the right attitude and approach early in the week.
“The way we’ve prepared,” says Ruddock when asked what gives him confidence that these new combinations will click.
“The coaching staff we have, we know we’ll always have a good plan and if the guys show the commitment to it in the way we train and the way we prepare, then we’re in with a good shout against any team. The level in training this week has been no different to last so that gives us great confidence.
“At the same time we’re well aware that this is a huge test, both in terms of the limited experience we have on our side, the lack of time with the combinations and the ability of the opposition.”
Outside the midfield, the combination most lacking in experience comes with Rob Herring and Andrew Porter in the front row.
A meeting with Fiji no longer means that set-piece is a secondary concern. Indeed, the way Ireland have set up for this series, it is of utmost importance as they are aiming to squeeze opposition and limit the free-running threat and fractious phases that Fiji excel in.
A calf injury was a tough break for John Ryan, but a big one for Porter who was on course to be a high-powered back-up to Cian Healy and Jack McGrath in Leinster’s loosehead stocks before switching to the other side of the front row.
Ideally, Schmidt might have wished for Porter to advance a little further along the unforgiving learning curve of the tighthead craft before starting a match with this kind of profile, but selection for today’s Test is a vote of confidence that will hopefully stand to the supersized 21-year-old.
“I think it speaks volumes for him that he only really moved to tighthead a year ago and he’s now where he is,” Ruddock says, with preparation again underlying his sentiment.
“That sort of displays the work ethic and the sort of willingness to want to learn. I don’t know many people who could make that transition so quickly, and I know his physical ability will affect that.
“He is immensely strong and powerful so once he learnt the technique and the nous to do that, his strength did the rest of it. From training with him and playing with him, already I’ve massive confidence that he can showcase what he can do tomorrow.”
“(Eight-man scrummaging is) something that we always pride ourselves on in this environment. Your back rows are as excited for a scrum as your front-rows… so it’s on all of us to support whoever is in the front row at that time and to give them that energy and confidence that we’re with them all the way, that we’re not going to go off before the ball’s out and stick in the fight as long as they do.
“So we definitely have a role to play in that, but the way he’s trained, the way he’s prepared, gives us confidence in what we can do.”
In Ruddock’s own unit there’s more of what you might call organic preparation.
Although at various points the presence of Josh van der Flier or Jamie Heaslip has meant that the back-row axis of Ruddock-Conan-Murphy is not the most regular combination employed by Leinster, they have already started as a trio this season (against the Southern Kings) and know one another’s game inside out.
Jack Conan spoke with some pained honesty this week as he conceded that he is not the breakdown poach threat he would like to be. After Ireland got more than their fair share of change by attacking Springbok rucks last week, look for him to test that particular work-on alongside Ruddock and Jordi Murphy in an effort to suffocate Fijian ball.
“Jordi has the ability to tackle, get back on his feet and be a real presence at the breakdown,” Ruddock says of his back row.
“If you’re stopping them getting quick ball, it’s very difficult for them to make those yards around the ruck so the ability of all of us to be able to do that and affect a tackle, affect the speed of the ball, will be quite important. I don’t know if I’m quite as good at it as Jordi, but I managed to get one at the weekend so we’ll see.”
It’s experience like that of Ruddock in the back row, Devin Toner ahead of him and Jack McGrath at the coalface that form a solid spine through this Ireland side. So while Schmidt will be able to gather a serious amount of evidence on a number of experimental elements in his team, there remains tried and trusted components that ought to bring Ireland the control, and eventual victory, they have been planning for.
15. Andrew Conway
14. Darren Sweetnam
13. Chris Farrell
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Dave Kearney
10. Joey Carbery
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Jack McGrath
2. Rob Herring
3. Andrew Porter
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Devin Toner
6. Rhys Ruddock (Capt.)
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jack Conan
16. James Tracy
17. Cian Healy
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. CJ Stander
21. Luke McGrath
22. Ian Keatley
23. Robbie Henshaw
15. Kini Murimurivalu
14. Timoci Nagusa
13. Jale Vatabua
12. Levani Botia
11. Nemani Nadolo
10. Ben Volavola
9. Henry Senioli
1. Campese Ma’afu
2. Talemaitoga Tuapati
3. Manasa Saulo
4. Apisalome Ratuniyarawa
5. Leone Nakarawa
6. Dominiko Waqaniburuto
7. Akapusi Qera (Capt.)
8. Nemani Nagusa
16. Sunia Koto
17. Peni Ravai
18. Kalivati Tawake
19. Sikeli Nabou
20. Peceli Yato / Semi Kunatani
21. Niko Matawalu
22. Asaeli Tikoirotuma
23. Vereniki Goneva
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):