Chicago could be another important staging post in Carbery's career
Absences mean Rhys Ruddock would seem a likely candidate to lead Ireland against Italy
Munster’s Joey Carbery: 'He gets it; he gets the game. He knows what he wants from people around him, and he’s not afraid to say it, which is great.' Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Although a slew of frontline players have, as expected, been retained in Dublin with the games against Argentina and New Zealand in mind, there is still a fair sprinkling of experience amongst a relatively lightly capped 26-man squad which departed to Chicago on Monday for Saturday’s Test against Italy in Soldier Field.
Captain Rory Best and his vice-captains Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton are among those to remain in Ireland, along with fellow Lions Cian Healy, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls, as well as Dan Leavy.
In the absence of the captain and two vice-captains, Rhys Ruddock would seem a likely candidate to lead the side, as he did on the three-match tour of the USA and Japan in June of last year, and at home to Fiji last November.
Despite starting last Saturday’s win over Benetton at Stadio di Monigo, a little surprisingly Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan were all on board the flight to Chicago. Back to back games in Treviso and Chicago would appear unlikely preparation for then facing Argentina and the All Blacks in Dublin on successive Saturdays.
That said it could be that Furlong and Ryan will provide cover in Chicago for, barring injuries, three of the 26-man party which set off from Dublin are earmarked for standby duty. These will include a prop (five of whom were named in the squad on Monday ) and this will most likely be one of the tightheads Furlong, Andrew Porter and Finlay Bealham.
An additional back five forward is also travelling to provide cover, given the inclusion of four of the five locks named in the original 42-man squad, Ryan, Devin Toner, Tadhg Beirne and Quinn Roux, as well as four back-rowers Ruddock, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy.
That O’Brien has remained in Ireland along with O’Mahony, Stander and Leavy also suggests he has shown enough of his all-round abilities and leadership since returning to action with Leinster to feature against Argentina and, maybe, the All Blacks.
Although it seems likely that Joey Carbery will start after his largely successful switch to Munster, Ross Byrne is in line for his debut off the bench at the very least having remained there and unused for 80 minutes in the third test in Sydney.
Similarly, the former England under-20 centre cum full-back Will Addison looks primed for his Test debut. Addison, who qualifies through his Irish mother, has been mightily impressive since joining Ulster with his composure on the ball and ability to make something happen.
Carbery was rested for Munster’s dramatic and hugely important last-gasp comeback win over Glasgow on Saturday night at Thomond Park, having previously started six games in a row at outhalf. That has gone a long way toward vindicating his decision to move from Leinster, and his reward is likely to be a fourth Test start which, with Sexton back in Dublin, adds to the importance of this staging post en route to the World Cup.
With Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson having moved abroad since the last World Cup, Carbery’s importance to this Irish squad has grown accordingly, and it’s worth remembering that when he helped steer Ireland home to that historic win over the All Blacks on the previous US trek two years ago it marked his debut and came four days after his 21st birthday.
Carbery turns 23 on Thursday, and has fitted in fairly seamlessly at Munster, showcasing his willingness to take the ball to the line, and threaten both with his own running game (witness three tries in six outings) or by putting others into space and over the try line.
His place kicking and much of his kicking out of hand, which will only improve, has been good too, and all of this without Conor Murray.
Asked recently what has most impressed him about Carbery, Murray said: “I keep forgetting how young he is; 22 years of age. He’s come down and he’s taken it by the scruff of the neck. He’s taken to it really well. Everyone has welcomed him in, and he gets on really well with everyone.
“He gets it; he gets the game. He knows what he wants from people around him, and he’s not afraid to say it, which is great. I think that’s been really impressive. He’s come down and, not that he’s tried to bully people around the place, but he’s the ‘10’ and he’s an outhalf. There’s a number of them in the squad and they get on really well, but he’s leading it. He means business. He’s trying to go to another level. He’s going well so far, and I thought he was incredible last year.”
Whereas Conor O’Shea took the unusual step of announcing his match-day 23 last week, unveiling a starting XV that shows a dozen changes from their last outing, a win in Japan last June, Joe Schmidt will not declare his hand until Thursday.
Despite leaving behind seven players with a half-century of caps or more, and in Best’s case over a century, the 26-man squad which travelled to Chicago still demonstrated the healthy strength in depth under Schmidt’s watch. Ireland will be the warmest of favourites in the windy city.