Gerry Thornley: Mix of youth and experience the order for Schmidt
Chicago Test represents an opportunity for likes of Carbery, McGrath and Beirne
Jordi Murphy, Will Addison and Bundee Aki at the Chicago Bulls vs Denver Nuggets NBA game at the United Center, Chicago. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A friendly in Chicago between two Six Nations rivals may seem somewhat contrived, and certainly not the most important fixture of all time – or even of this November window.
The two respective team selections reflect that, but it sure will matter to all those involved and, if anything, the novelty value of this remodelled Irish team adds to its potential and appeal.
In fact, Joe Schmidt has not shuffled his deck as much as Conor O’Shea has done, and has kept five of the starting XV from the third Test in Sydney which completed an historic series win in Australia.
Even so, Schmidt normally sends very experienced and battle-hardened selections into battle, and it says something about this side’s relative callowness that Garry Ringrose, with 14 caps, is Ireland’s most experienced back.
Even more remarkably, next up is Joey Carbery, who turned 23 yesterday, albeit only four of his 12 Tests to date have been from the start.
But this opportunity, like that of Tadhg Beirne, is vindication for his decision to move to Munster, where he has played with striking composure in six successive starts at outhalf.
“Joey’s an affable character and a fierce competitor so it’s not overly surprising that he’s fitted in well at Munster, especially because he knew so many of the players before he went there,” said Schmidt.
“His running game is a strength as is his work ethic, so that’s always a good starting point, At the same time, being new into an environment and having to run the game is a challenge but I think he’s doing a good job of it and he seems to be getting increasingly comfortable with it.”
Schmidt has opted to play Carbery outside his one-time Leinster halfback partner Luke McGrath, for whom this will be a second Test start, while Jordan Larmour and Beirne make their first Test starts after six and two appearances respectively off the bench.
“Kieran’s [Marmion] just back from an ankle injury and John Cooney has been nursing a knock to the shoulder so Luke was an obvious choice to start the game,” said Schmidt.
“He’s earned the opportunity, being sharp around the fringes and generating good tempo with his distribution, especially in the Wasps game, so it’ll be great for him if we can provide a really positive platform for him. We’ll be watching how Kieran goes on Saturday against the Dragons and John Cooney is likely to get time off the bench. He’s continued on from where he finished up last season, doing a great job for Ulster.”
The prospect of Carbery and Larmour playing off each other for Ireland is an exciting one, all the more so as the outside three cupboard is looking thinner these days.
“Jordan has worked hard and it’s great for him to get the opportunity to start the Test match,” said Schmidt.
“His cameos during the Six Nations and in Australia were really promising, including some impressive involvements on the ground and in the air. The catch he took in the last few minutes in the third Test in Australia was superb, despite competing with one of the best in the business in Israel Folau.”
Beirne’s performance levels went up a notch or two in Munster’s European games against Exeter and Gloucester, and with his running and handling game, and ability over the ball, it looks like he could add real value to this Irish team.
“Tadhg’s continued at Munster where he left off at Scarlets,” said Schmidt. “He’s shown the same impressive work rate, he’s been smart and combative at the breakdown and he’s carried well. He did a good job coming off the bench twice in Australia so we’re looking forward to seeing how he goes in a starting role. It’ll be tough with the physical nature of the Italian back five but that’s ideal in a lot of ways.”
There are also a couple of potential debutants off the bench in Ross Byrne, an unused sub in that third Test in Australia , and Ulster’s newly acquired utility back, Will Addison.
The five players retained are Jack McGrath (the side’s only 50 capper), Niall Scannell, Jack Conan, Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki, who forms a potent midfield partnership with Garry Ringrose, while Andrew Conway – so unlucky to have his Australian tour ended in the first quarter of the first Test – completes the back three.
Andrew Porter will make his third Test start, while Beirne is partnered by Quinn Roux. Rhys Ruddock captains his country for a fifth time, and is joined in the backrow by Josh van der Flier.
In the injury-enforced absence of Rory Best, Scannell made the most of his unexpected chance in Australia, starting the first and third Tests.
“We felt that Niall would benefit from getting some game time but it’s a competitive position so the challenge for him is to hit the ground running in Chicago. He is a strong set piece hooker. He has a high work rate and has done some very solid defensive work for Munster so far this season, making plenty of tackles with a very high percentage of success.”
This fixture is also given particular poignancy by the likelihood of Ian McKinley, whom Schmidt coached at Leinster, making his fourth Test appearance against the country of his birth.
“I’ve known Ian from the time that I first started coaching in Leinster eight and a half years ago and he’s a quality character and skilful player. In my first year in Leinster, his first match day start was against Treviso in the RDS, ironically, and he showed real promise, playing well and scoring a quality try.
“The deterioration of his eye injury was incredibly unfortunate but I’ve heard him speak about it and he approached it as a challenge, one that he’s overcome impressively.”
IRELAND: J Larmour (Leinster); A Conway (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Stockdale (Ulster); J Carbery (Munster), L McGrath (Leinster); J McGrath (Leinster), N Scannell (Munster), A Porter (Leinster); T Beirne (Munster), Q Roux (Connacht); R Ruddock (Leinster, capt), J van der Flier (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Muster), F Bealham (Connacht), D Toner (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster), J Cooney (Ulster), R Byrne (Leinster), W Addison (Ulster).