Schmidt expecting Carbery and McGrath to continue progress
Despite the experimental line-ups, there is plenty at stake for players on both sides
Joey Carbery gets in some kicking practice durin Ireland’s captain’s run at Soldier Field, Chicago on Friday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland v Italy, Soldier Field, Chicago.
On TV: Live on eirSport.
Kick-off: 3pm local time/8pm Irish.
Ireland return to the scene of, arguably, their greatest one-off triumph two years ago when they beat the All Blacks for the first time.
It followed the Chicago Cubs’ historic World Series win and the election of Donald Trump the following week.
There’s little point in kidding ourselves that today’s triple header carries anything like the same magnitude but it is what it is, and the meeting of two experimental line-ups carries its own intrigue.
Ireland having made ten changes form their last outing, and Italy 13 from theirs, it’s also a hard game to truly analyse or forecast. There are few certainties before a sports encounter, but there are more unknowns and relative unknowns in this one than normal.
Noting Italy’s 6-2 split on the bench, Schmidt said: “They’re obviously coming locked and fully loaded to be physical. You wouldn’t expect anything else but it will be a real contest.”
In addition to a win, there are other key component parts to this November opener which would make for a good day at the office. Schmidt began by singling out the half-backs of Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery.
“A really positive day would be a continuation of Joey’s development, and a really smooth cohesion between Luke and Joey, and then beyond. A really solid set-piece day, because I think it’s a little bit easier for Luke and Joey if we get a really solid setpiece and if our ruck work is good, because the better the platforms it will just be a little bit easier for those guys to get everyone else under way.
“Then on the back of that, those back three guys get as many involvements as possible. Andrew Conway is mad keen to get involved. Jacob Stockdale missed a bit of the season and I think he’s just on his way back to hitting some form, and Jordan Larmour he came off the bench in the Six Nations and showed an incredible bit of footwork,” said Schmidt, though he noted that his pass led to a turnover and he was burned by Matteo Minozzi, which was a pointer to “getting his balance and timing defensively”.
“There are all sorts of opportunities for guys to get a bit of learning out of it, and that’s probably what I’m looking for in the coaching group, and probably more than a score. I’d never try to pick a score anyway because you just don’t know how the game is going unfold.
“But with Nigel there, he’s keen to get decent tempo to the game so hopefully that’s what we get and people get a good game.”
There’s certainly a neat sense of symmetry in Carbery being Ireland’s starting outhalf today, two years on from that debut cameo against the All Blacks and now two days on from his 23rd birthday. Marshalling such a relatively callow collection of backs all week and from the start is arguably just as big a challenge.
On a day given added poignancy by the prospect of Ian McKinley winning his fourth cap for Italy, and against Ireland, this will also mark full Test debuts for Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne, as well as first caps for Ross Byrne and Will Addison off the bench, and a third start for the young bull Andrew Porter, who must be straining at the leash in the shadow of Tadhg Furlong.
On the day Ireland were beating the All Blacks, Porter was making his first Leinster start, ironically in a 33-10 win away to Zebre.
“It was a small crowd, lashing rain, cold day in Zebre that day,” he recalled on Thursday. “I just remember watching the Chicago game on TV and it was crazy, like, just seeing a few of my mates be a part of it.
“I remember Joey at the time, I would have played a lot of my underage rugby with him so to see him there and after the game, it was obviously such a special occasion for him and for Irish rugby as well.”
It’s a measure of the 22-year-old’s progress as a tighthead prop that he was a loosehead that day.
“Ah yeah, I’ve kind of exceeded a few of my own expectations over the last few years. I can’t really say I would have expected to be where I am now in that short space of time, especially moving over from loosehead – where I would have been playing at that time two years ago – to the other side of the scrum.
“I have to kind of pinch myself now. Obviously it’s a big step up to Test level. I honestly couldn’t tell you what I was hoping for back then, I was just taking it in short strides. Yeah, it was kind of crazy how things snowballed so quickly, over the past year especially.
“I think it was last March or something I remember someone saying it was six months ago since my first game at tighthead for UCD or something like that. It’s been pretty crazy looking back on that.”
It does seem a bit odd that this highly manufactured meeting comes on the same weekend as a full Pro14 programme in which Ulster make the trek to Treviso.
This Irish team has, as usual, a core of eight Leinster players in the starting XV, and 11 in the match-day 23, while the Italian team features eight Benetton players, with a further four on the bench.
Virtually all were excused duty from last week’s Pro14 clash between Benetton and Leinster in Stadio Monigo, yet the latter’s 31-3 win looks like a reasonable barometer for this meeting.
True, this has a unique flavour to it, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that Ireland have won 23 of the last 24 meetings between the sides.
This is as much about talented Test players with big futures making statements in the here and now, and that goes for the Azzurri as well, but anything less than a relatively commanding Irish win would be a disappointment.
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 (Munster), F Bealham (Connacht), D Toner (Leinster), J Murphy (Ulster), J Cooney (Ulster), R Byrne (Leinster), W Addison (Ulster).
Italy: L Sperandio (Benetton); M Bellini (Zebre), M Capagnaro (unattached, capt), L Morisi (Benetton), G Bisegni (Zebre); C Canna (Zebre), T Tebaldi (Benetton); N Quaglio (Benetton), L Bigi (Benetton), T Pasquali (Benetton), M Fuser (Benetton), G Biagi (Zebre), J Meyer (Zebre), A Steyn (Benetton), R Giammarioli (Zebre). Replacements: O Fabiani (Zebre), C Traore (Benetton), G Zilocchi (Zebre), M Lazzaroni (Benetton), F Ruzza (Benetton), J Tuivaiti (Zebre), G Palazzani (Zebre), I McKinley (Benetton).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).