Ireland v USA, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 7.15pm – Live on RTÉ 2
Normally an Irish summer expedition abroad in the year of a Lions tour is a relatively obscure event, or at any rate slips a tad under the radar. Not so this time, with up to eight players set to make their debut this evening on home soil and on terrestrial television, and with a more favourable evening kick-off than last week’s lunchtime start against Japan.
Four years ago, when meeting the same two opponents, Joe Schmidt also blooded nine new caps over the course of three matches. Of those, three went on to become significant parts of the Irish team at the World Cup two years later, namely James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale. Others who had only a handful of caps also became established internationals, including Jack Conan, now a Lion.
A similar return from these games would do nicely.
Andy Farrell’s selection ensures this is a much less experienced side than the one which beat the Eagles four years ago in New Jersey, never mind the strong side which also put up a half century on the USA in Chicago.
The team four years ago had stalwarts such as Keith Earls, Cian Healy and Devin Toner, and the matchday 23 had 294 caps compared to the 200 today. This Eagles squad has 355.
It will be a particularly proud day for Ulster, with four Test debutants – Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Tom O'Toole and Nick Timoney – in the starting XV reflecting the good work being done there.
Farrell is as “excited” as anyone to see how they go.
“We all know about Rob, he’s super quick. He’d be the quickest in the squad, that’s for sure. His rugby knowledge is coming along all the time, he’s learning more and more every time he takes the field.
“His defence has really come on, his high ball stuff is really good, he’s finding a way of getting involved in the attack as well. The potential is there for him so we’re super excited about that.
"James I've been really impressed with. I haven't worked with James before. He came in on the back of Garry Ringrose getting injured and it's been great to work with him. He's a big strong lad and we know that he plays at the line. He's really hard to handle. His appetite and his work-rate is great but his skill level is good as well. He's working hard on his communication and his distribution skills, and that's getting better. We've been very impressed in training. It's about taking that onto the field now."
Whereas Hume has had a breakthrough season with Ulster, like Baloucoune the Irish coaches have been investing in O’Toole for a while, and also akin to Baloucounce, Timoney brings athleticism and speed to the back row.
The Eagles will be no mugs judging on last week’s spirited Independence Day performance in Twickenham. Considering they’d only come together for the first time in 21 months four days previously, to win the second half 26-17 was a mighty effort.
They'll be the better for that, and Gary Gold has promoted last week's eye-catching debutant off the bench, Christian Dyer, as well as another try-scorer in flanker Hanco Germishuys, although concussed fullback Mark Brache looks a loss.
The back row, featuring the rangy, skilful ex-Northampton and Cardiff number eight Cam Dolan, looks a good unit and Bryce Campbell and Calvin Whiting carried well in midfield last week, as did their James Lowe left-wing look-alike Mika Kruse.
They also have the Aran Islands prop Paul Mullen and ex-Connacht academy outhalf Luke Carty, a near clone of his older brother Jack, who kicked very well on his debut against England. Gold also took understandable pride in their pack becoming the first to score directly off a maul in 36 games against England, and then added another.
So is this a prized chance to claim a Tier One scalp?
“We wouldn’t get ahead of ourselves that quickly about that,” said the well-travelled Gold, who added that he has “massive admiration for the Irish provinces. The game is in rude health in Ireland”.
“I’m probably more nervous about Faz and Catty giving these new caps a go, and we know only too well how good Ireland are, and when a new guy gets an opportunity, he’s going to grab it with both hands. The hunger and desire will probably be there even more now.”
Certainly if this Irish team are accurate at set-piece time and retain possession and their shape and work-rate off the ball, there should be rewards, as the Eagles' defence was pulled open whenever Marcus Smith had options.
There should be scope for Craig Casey to maintain a high tempo, and the opportunity for some quick taps, as well as attacking the fringes. The Eagles also left space in behind which Joey Carbery can exploit.
“We can all see they’re a side that’s going to be physical,” said Farrell of the Eagles. “Set-piece wise they want to compete hard and we need to make sure that we’re disciplined.
“This is a game of rugby, this isn’t touch rugby. We’ve got to respect how we want to play the game and make sure that we don’t become ill-disciplined in the way that we perform.”
Staying calm and next task focus was the key last week, he said, adding:
“It’s more of the same this week.”
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Robert Baloucoune (Ulster), James Hume (Ulster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Andrew Conway (Munster); Joey Carbery (Munster), Craig Casey (Munster); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tom O'Toole (Ulster); Ryan Baird (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster, capt); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Nick Timoney (Ulster), Gavin Coombes (Munster).
Replacements: Dave Heffernan (Connacht), Ed Byrne (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Fineen Wycherley (Munster), Paul Boyle (Connacht), Caolin Blade (Connacht), Harry Byrne (Leinster), Will Addison (Ulster.
USA: Mike Te'o (Utah Warriors); Christian Dyer (USA Sevens), Calvin Whiting (Utah Warriors), Bryce Campbell (Austin Gilgronis, capt), Mika Kruse (Utah Warriors); Luke Carty (LA Giltinis), Ruben de Haas (Austin Gilgronis); David Ainu'u (Toulouse), Joe Taufete'e (Lyon), Paul Mullen (Utah Warriors); Gregory Peterson (Newcastle Falcons), Nick Civetta (Rugby United New York); Hanco Germishuys (Rugby United New York), Riekert Hattingh (Seattle Seawolves), Cam Dolan (Nola Gold).
Replacements: Kapeli Pifeleti (Saracens), Matt Harmon (Nola gold), Dino Waldren (Nola Gold), Nate Brakeley (Rugby United New York), Psalm Wooching (San Diego Legion), Andrew Guerra (Nola Gold), Michael Baska (Utah Warriors), Will Magie (Austin).
Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)
Head-to-head – 2018: Ireland 57 USA 14; 2017: USA 19 Ireland 55; 2013: USA 12 Ireland 15; 2011, RWC: Ireland 22 USA 10 (New Plymouth); 2009: USA 10 Ireland 27; 2004: Ireland 55 USA 6; 2000: USA 3 Ireland 83; 1999: Ireland 53 USA 8; 1996: USA 18 Ireland 25.
Betting: 1-33 Ireland, 55-1 Draw, 14-1 USA. Handicap odds (USA +27) 10-11 Ireland, 22-1 Draw, 10-11 USA.
Forecast: Ireland to win with a flourish.
Ireland’s four new caps in starting line-up
Robert Baloucoune (23, wing/fullback)
Like his Senegalese father he played football until persuaded by friends to try rugby at 15. Came through Enniskillen, school and club, and stint with Irish Sevens and Jared Payne’s coaching improved his defence. A 6ft 4in flyer with a Doug Howlett-like ability to change direction, he has returned from missing a year with a hamstring injury. Seriously exciting.
James Hume (22, centre)
Won three Ulster schools cups with RBAI before coming through Irish under-20s and Ulster academy before a hamstring tear interrupted his progress. Has started 24 games since the resumption. Powerful, with good footwork and a strong defender, has an offloading game and has improved his distribution. Has real class.
Tom O’Toole (22, prop)
Born in Drogheda, he played for the Queensland Schools when reared in Brisbane before relocating to Campbell College and the Ulster and Irish underage sides. Mobile, skilful and gutsy. In his second Ulster start against the Ospreys, a Champions Cup playoff in May 2018, he injured his knee in the warm-up, played the full 80 and made 16 tackles.
Nick Timoney (25, backrow)
A star of Blackrock’s Leinster schools-winning side of 2013, when released by Leinster he turned down Pau to join Ulster. Like Baloucoune, he credits the Sevens circuit for developing his game, particularly his one-on-one tackling and passing. Seriously quick too, and very smart on and off the field.