Ireland head Down Under seeking an endurance test before final World Cup exam

Three-Test tour of Australia offers a perfect dry run for Japan next year

Ireland’s tour to Australia offers John Cooney a chance to become a a significant player. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

No rest for the weary Irish rugby soldier. Joe Schmidt was up in Belfast yesterday to meet lord mayor Nuala McAllister with crocked Leinster duo, Josh van der Flier and Fergus McFadden, among some Ulster men to revive fading Grand Slam memories at Twickenham of a St Patrick’s Day.

That was the last test for Schmidt’s Ireland, the next being in Brisbane on June 9th. So many punishing battles in between and ahead. Remarkably, so many are still standing.

Michael Cheika names his Wallaby panel on Wednesday – expect a lack of conjecture as Cheika holds an actual press conference as opposed to the IRFU email – with Israel Folau and David Pocock expected to, at least temporarily, put aside polar opposite views on homosexuality after a senior players’ meeting in Sanctuary Cove on May 7th.

“Even if we don’t all agree, you can still all get on,” says Cheika.


That remains to be seen.

Naked strife

Still, it makes Irish rugby’s underlying tension over the national need to shift Joey Carbery to Munster seem trivial in comparison to naked strife Down Under between ARU chief executive Raelene Castle and out spoken superstar Folau.

Solve that mess.

“I don’t believe it’s going to be an ongoing issue,” Cheika claims.

“We’ve spoken. We speak about that [issue] , we speak about footy, speak about everything.”

Ulster’s nightmare season has passed, the IRFU severing all links to Paddy Jackson, so Schmidt’s Ireland endeavour to move on with Carbery and Ross Byrne under-studying for their Leinster leader.

Besides Luke McGrath – presumably excluded to rehab from surgery – Schmidt is about to have his favourite Joebots recharging in business class.

It’s highly unlikely the named 32 will travel. Far too many injury concerns and there’s a Pro 14 final to unfold but, for the Ireland coaches, this tour is of enormous value, it being the last opportunity to have three weeks of complete access in an alien environment before Japan 2019.

Tadhg Beirne – almost reclaimed from Llanelli – Byrne and Ulster player of the season John Cooney can become significant pieces in the puzzle. They have one cap between them – Cooney in the second Japan Test last summer – when the place-kicking scrumhalf would be forgiven for presuming his international career was on the runway, engines on.

The 28-year-old has found his groove in Belfast. This opportunity is hard-earned for him and Beirne.

Willing centres

By the time Ireland depart Kieran Marmion could be the only touring Connacht player as Bundee Aki’s ankle denies him the Barbarians captaincy at Twickenham this weekend. Same goes for Robbie Henshaw, who suffered a knee injury in Bilbao, which suggests Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold, Munster’s ever willing centres, could still travel.

Schmidt will presumably have his way with Carbery seeking a 12-month move away from Leinster in the next week or he can watch Byrne’s continued progress at outhalf in the Test series (long odds on Johnny Sexton still standing in Sydney on June 23rd).

That’s the real value of this Australian adventure: an endurance test doubling as a search for alternative options in the best possible dry run for World Cup quarters, semis and final. Seventeen months and counting.

That explains the five secondrows. Cautionary tales demand the protection of James Ryan at some stage with Quinn Roux’s size making the South African an almost guaranteed Schmidt alternative, much more than he’s a Connacht player.

Iain Henderson is listed despite limping off at Thomond Park on April 28th.

Regardless, Beirne will put serious pressure on Jordi Murphy and Devin Toner come the first Test when a full metal jacket selection is promised. Cooney should squeeze Marmion off the bench but expect much of the starting XV who tore down England’s house to reappear at Suncorp stadium.

Folau and Pocock will, presumably, be waiting, shoulder to shoulder.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent