Chicago and the All Blacks await as Ireland rugby squad assembles
Travelling party of 27 to be confirmed on Monday morning after injuries are assessed
Leinster’s Seán O’Brien tries to get past Dave Heffernan and Craig Ronaldson of Connacht during Leinster’s 24-13 win in the Guinness Pro12 at the RDS, Dublin, on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Working off last week’s 34-man playing squad, a travelling party of 27 players will fly to Chicago on Monday for next Saturday’s historic, if daunting, assignment against New Zealand. The back-to-back world champions and runaway Rugby Championship winners await, complete with their unprecedented 18-match winning streak.
The composition of Ireland’s squad will be confirmed on Monday morning, prior to its lunchtime departure, pending an assessment of players with various injuries. Ultan Dillane, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong are carrying knocks, while Finlay Bealham is also a concern after suffering suspected concussion as a replacement for Connacht in their defeat to Leinster at the RDS on Saturday night; a situation made additionally complicated by the squad’s flight of nearly nine hours.
Perhaps significantly, apart from the injured Henderson and the suspended Keith Earls, an exact 15 players were rested from the weekend’s two sellout interprovincial derbies in Belfast and Dublin on Friday and Saturday.
They were Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane, Devin Toner, CJ Stander, Jordi Murphy and Jamie Heaslip.
One can only deduce that the uncapped Ringrose is in the running to make his debut.
All 12 of those in the Irish squad who started the two derbies came through unscathed, as did three of the four who appeared off the bench. Significantly or not, Luke McGrath was left on Leinster’s bench as Jamison Gibson-Park played the full 80 minutes of their 24-13 win over Connacht.
Schmidt’s backrow options – for the four-game November window in any event, whatever about the upcoming game in Chicago – have been strengthened by Seán O’Brien completing almost an hour’s impressive work, while Peter O’Mahony got through his first full 80 minutes since his return in Munster’s sleeves-rolled-up 15-14 comeback win away to Ulster on Friday night.
There were five good, strong carries and seven tackles, and O’Brien also made a real nuisance of himself at the breakdown, albeit that a 10-minute spell in the sinbin for putting his shoulder into the head of Peter Robb at a ruck was not part of the plan. But after a half apiece for the As and then in the Champions Cup in Montpellier, this was another step forward for him.
Confirming O’Brien’s wellbeing, Leo Cullen said afterwards: “It’s just about getting on the ball and getting into the rhythm because he hasn’t played a huge amount of rugby for Leinster the last couple of seasons and now he’s played games back to back.
“Three games on the bounce with the A game as well. That’s a positive step.”
Equally encouraging was Cian Healy’s bullish 50 minutes in his fifth start of the season. As bulk suppliers, with 16 players in the original 34-man squad, which has seemingly been picked with the Chicago game and Saturday week at home to Canada in mind, there’s been a frisson of anticipation within Leinster’s ranks this past week.
“They are excited,” said Cullen with a chuckle. “What an amazing challenge. You go to play a home game in Chicago. It’s exciting.
“It’s a different challenge when they come back against Canada, and then they have New Zealand and Australia, so [it’s] an amazing four weeks ahead.”
While the scale of the challenge is as steep as it could possibly be, Cullen said: “That’s what kids want to do when they grow up. It doesn’t get any bigger than Ireland against the All Blacks.”
Whereas Kieran Marmion played almost the full 80 minutes for Connacht, Cullen played down the fact that Luke McGrath was kept on the bench, revealing that it was a case of needs-must that he was there in the first place.
“Luke has been a bit bashed about and Nick McCarthy got injured last week,” Cullen said.
Top of the table
By gaining some revenge for last May’s Guinness Pro12 final defeat to Connacht on a lovely evening at a packed RDS on Saturday, Leinster returned to the top of the table, alongside the Ospreys and Glasgow on 26 points but ahead by dint of having won a game more.
“The full house is unbelievably satisfying, and hopefully we get it for the rest of the season because it makes a huge difference to the running of the club really,” said Cullen.
“The players are working hard and they want to make this a special place to play, and the crowd play a huge part in that. A pleasing day.”
Leinster were missing eight of their 16-strong contingent in Schmidt’s Irish squad (which contained only three Connacht players), and had another four on the bench, yet still fielded seven full internationals as against four in Connacht’s starting team.
So while opportunity knocked for a more settled Connacht team, they still only had five of the starting line-up from last May’s final, as against two from Leinster.
Hence, there was no shame in losing away to Leinster, even if regrets, they’ll have plenty from such an imprecise display. Almost everybody does.
Referring to Leinster’s 19-game unbeaten run at the RDS, Pat Lam said: “It’s not an easy place to beat these guys; not many teams can. If you are going to, you have to be at your best, and we thought we had a genuine opportunity, but we needed to be at our best, and we weren’t tonight.”
But Connacht’s early-season struggles have given them less elbow room. Whereas last season they had won five of their first six at this point, and would win seven of their opening games, this season they lost their first three games.
The consequence of that early-season run is that now, in order to emulate last season’s achievement, Connacht would need to win 13 of their last 16 matches.