Injuries and form shape Joe Schmidt’s squad

The captaincy issue to be resolved next week ahead of three November tests against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand

Leinster’s Jack McGrath has seen his early-season form rewarded by a call-up to the Ireland squad for the Autumn Internationals. Photograph; Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Leinster’s Jack McGrath has seen his early-season form rewarded by a call-up to the Ireland squad for the Autumn Internationals. Photograph; Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 


The DNA of the Ireland squad, chosen by national coach Joe Schmidt, for the November test series can be traced to the final match in last season’s Six Nations Championship, a 22-15 defeat to Italy in Rome and the two-match summer tour to North America when an Ireland squad, minus the Irish Lions contingent, beat the USA and Canada, in that order.

Inevitably injuries intervened in the selection process, denying Schmidt players like Stephen Ferris, Richardt Strauss, Tommy O’Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Simon Zebo and over the weekend, Donnacha Ryan – out for 10 weeks with torn knee ligaments sustained in Munster’s Heineken Cup victory over Gloucester – and Ulster’s Iain Henderson, who damaged a big toe in Ulster’s superb win in Montpellier.

Craig Gilroy, Ireland’s starting right wing in Rome, is sidelined with an ankle injury, and Luke Fitzgerald, who was on the bench that day, is busy accumulating game time following a prolonged, enforced absence through injury.

Brian O’Driscoll (calf) has been named in the squad, on the basis that his return to action is, if not imminent, likely to be in the next fortnight to three weeks.

A problem will be match sharpness. He’s played once this season, for Leinster in a RaboDirect Pro 12 game against the Cardiff Blues. It’s a pretty tough ask for his second to be a Test match against Samoa, Australia or New Zealand.

Mike Ross (hamstring) has also been named in the national squad. He limped off after 16 minutes of Leinster’s Heineken Cup win against the Ospreys last Saturday week and will undergo a fitness test tomorrow to ascertain his availability for this weekend’s Pro 12 clash with Connacht at the RDS.

Proven record
The composition of the squad thereafter is based as Schmidt outlined on “players who have shown form in the domestic season mixed with those who have a proven record at international level.

“As always there were some very difficult decisions. Some players have had limited opportunity to impress due to injury and others have performed very well and it was difficult to leave them out.”

The issue of the captaincy will be resolved next week. The national squad convenes on Sunday night to prepare for the autumn series. Peter O’Mahony led Ireland on the two-Test summer tour in the absence of Jamie Heaslip, who was in Australia with the British and Irish Lions.

There are three uncapped players, Dave Kearney (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster) and James Coughlan (Munster).

Andrew Trimble (Ulster) and Niall Morris (Leicester Tigers) will have formed some part of a discussion in relation to the three-quarters line options. Fergus McFadden started both Tests in North America on the right wing, but Schmidt has opted for the younger Kearney ahead of Trimble – he lined out against Canada – and Morris, who toured with Emerging Ireland to Georgia.

Depending on O’Driscoll’s injury, Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw may get a chance to wear the number 13 jersey against Samoa, but it’s not as if the Ireland coach is short of options, with McFadden, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe having played outside centre in their respective careers.

Gordon D’Arcy has also done so very successfully in the past.

Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan are fighting for the role of Jonathan Sexton’s understudy, with the Ulsterman having a conspicuous advantage of being first choice for his province and playing well to boot. However, both toured North America and Madigan started both Tests.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Madigan benching for Leinster has affected the pecking order.

At scrumhalf, Conor Murray did well with the Lions; Isaac Boss started the Tests against the USA and Canada; Eoin Reddan has recovered from a broken leg sustained at the tail end of last season, and so Ulster’s Paul Marshall, a summer tourist and a replacement for the final Six Nations game in Rome, is squeezed out.

McGrath, the try scorer for Leinster last weekend, has been in outstanding form, and the 23-year-old’s promotion from the Emerging Ireland squad has seen Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne (eight caps) lose out.

Under pressure
Schmidt watched the UL Bohemian loosehead and Tom Court (Ulster) start one Test each in North America and has plumped for the latter. Being under pressure to retain his place at provincial level – James Cronin has been superb – must have been a distraction.

Munster hooker Mike Sherry will be relieved to retain a place in the 34-man squad, having lost the starting jersey to Damien Varley for last weekend’s win over Gloucester.

In the secondrow, Mike McCarthy, Devin Toner and Dan Tuohy toured with Ireland in the summer, while Paul O’Connell was on Lions duty.

The injuries to Ryan and Henderson mean 32-year-old Munster number eight Coughlan demonstrates that form and not age is the most pertinent criterion. He was called into an extended Ireland squad before the Scotland game in last season’s Six Nations. Kevin McLaughlin wore the number six jersey against Canada, while Chris Henry’s versatility makes him an obvious choice.

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