Gerry Thornley's team prediction: O’Brien and Best set for Ireland return
O’Brien set for his first outing in Ireland jersey in almost a year against Argentina
Rory Best is expected to return as Ireland captain. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Rory Best is expected to return as Ireland captain for Saturday’s first Test of the Guinness Series at the Aviva Stadium against Argentina after missing the summer tour to Australia, while Sean O’Brien is also in line for his first outing in his country’s colours in almost a year.
Joe Schmidt is expected to unveil a much changed and more experienced starting XV and match-day 23 for this latest meeting with the Pumas compared with the Irish line-up for last Saturday’s 54-7 win over a second-string Italy.
Best seems well primed to lead the side again, having overcome the torn hamstring which ruled him out of the Australian tour after being initially named to captain the squad down under. Niall Scannell, called up as a replacement for Best, grasped the opportunity after an injury-inflicted campaign. He started both the second and third Tests, and particularly caught the eye with his ball-carrying and solid set-piece work.
But although there is some speculation that the now 36-year-old Best may come under pressure to retain his place, Schmidt has always stressed the value of the Ulster man’s work rate and leadership, and that shows no signs of diminishing just yet.
Best also played four games in successive weeks for Ulster during October before being rested for their trek to Treviso last Saturday. Having trained with those in the Irish squad who remained in Carton House, all in all he looks well primed to captain his country again.
Likewise, O’Brien has accumulated a high number of minutes in his latest comeback trail, injuries having meant earlier than expected introductions in his first game back away to Connacht and in Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup.
He also started the marquee fixture at home to Munster, and the win in Benetton last Saturday week before being taken off just past the hour mark, which looked like a pre-ordained move with this week in mind. By contrast, Dan Leavy played 80 minutes for Leinster in their 38-31 win away to the Southern Kings last night, and did not link up with the squad until yesterday evening.
Meanwhile, both Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander worked under Schmidt’s watchful eye last week in Carton House before being excused duty for both Munster and Ireland respectively in South Africa and the USA last week. All of which points to a backrow of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Stander.
Rarely has an Irish team been so difficult to call, and specifically from a position of strength, than is the case now; witness the secondrow and midfield as well as backrow. It is a measure of James Ryan’s extraordinary readiness for Test rugby in what was effectively his rookie year last season, that he now seems the first lock on the team sheet.
Iain Henderson, having remained in Carton House and then been rested last week, also looks primed to start. That, admittedly, would leave Devin Toner, a sub in Chicago but the player who has started more matches than any other under Schmidt, again confined to bench duty, with last Saturday’s two-try full debutant Tadhg Beirne having to bide his time.
Make the cut
When Luke McGrath didn’t make the cut as one of three scrumhalves for the Australian tour despite helping Leinster to a European Cup/Pro14 double, he must have considered his World Cup hopes to be fairly bleak. In the third month of this season however, after an outstanding display in Leinster’s thrashing of Wasps, if more flawed a week later in Toulouse, McGrath marked his second full start in Chicago with a try before enabling Ireland to pick up the tempo in the second half. Also used on media duty on Tuesday and on the IRFU’s website, he seems sure to be involved, but Kieran Marmion looks the likelier starter, with Johnny Sexton presumably straining at the leash.
Choosing two from three in midfield, namely Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, is a decidedly tricky one for Schmidt and co, but one often denied them by injury to one of the trio. The word is that Ringrose picked up a knock of some kind in Chicago and didn’t train this week, so the likeliest scenario is that Aki and Henshaw renew their Connacht Pro12-winning midfield combo.
Alternatively, the presence of Will Addison on media duty on both Saturday and Tuesday might suggest that after being given his debut off the bench in Chicago, he is being fast-tracked into the team set-up.
However, such an untried partnership of Henshaw and Addison looks risky against these Pumas, who are particularly adept at attacking and picking holes off the distribution and running threat of Nicolas Sanchez in the midfield channels.
Addison looks like a classy operator, and admired by Schmidt, so possibly the fact that his debut for the last quarter in Chicago was at fullback is a pointer to his role this week.
Ireland possible XV v Argentina: Addison; Earls, Henshaw, Aki, Stockdale; Sexton, Marmion; Healy, Best (captain), Furlong, Ryan, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Stander.