Schmidt reshuffles Ireland to give players rare opportunity to shine in USA Test
Bealham, Cooney and Carbery among 14 changes made to side that beat All Blacks
Finlay Bealham has been selected to start against the USA. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
In making 14 changes from the first Irish side to beat the All Blacks on home soil last week for tomorrow’s meeting with the USA, as expected Joe Schmidt has afforded a host of players a rare opportunity to stake their claims in the increasingly competitive Irish set-up.
This will be the last opportunity to experiment in such fashion until the World Cup warm-up matches next August, and even then those games will be as much about fine-tuning the front-liners.
So it is that only Garry Ringrose has been retained from last week’s starting XV, which had 680 caps compared with tomorrow’s 188, and the only surprise is that Schmidt and co didn’t go further.
Sam Arnold will thus have to wait to make his debut off the bench, where he is joined by Ross Byrne, who thus has to wait for his full debut. Byrne’s only cap to date was for the final quarter against Italy in Chicago, a game Joey Carbery started before playing off the bench against Argentina and New Zealand. But Carbery starts again here.
By contrast, John Cooney was confined to the final 15 minutes in Chicago and so makes his full Test debut here, while Luke McGrath has had the same match involvements as Carbery but is on the bench tomorrow.
For Darren Sweetnam and Stuart McCloskey, it is their first appearances of this November window, with Schmidt explaining that Ringrose’s selection was to ease the pressure on Carbery while giving both McCloskey and Andrew Conway “every opportunity to be as good as they can be”.
Also name-checking Jack Conan and Jordi Murphy, Schmidt added: “There’s all sorts of opportunities for guys across the board really. It’s a big day for Niall Scannell. He’s been good for us in the past. He has a really good throw and will bring a real edge to the scrummage hopefully.
“Finlay Bealham came off the bench in Chicago when we first beat the All Blacks and he’s been involved in some really big days for us before. Dave Kilcoyne came off the bench against South Africa and Argentina last year when he really pushed his way into that squad of 23.”
“So there’s lots of conversation for the coaching staff to have post this game, and I think the Italy game was tough on players. They only really had that one training, so they didn’t quite get that continuity.”
Bealham’s appearance off the bench three weeks ago against Italy bridged a 17-month gap since his previous Test. This will be his second start and first since Canada in November 2016. Ala the rejuvenated Kilcoyne, it transpires that a summer weight-loss programme was key to his revived form this season.
Admitting that his lack of involvement was “a bit upsetting”, Bealham added: “I had to have a look at myself in the mirror and focus on things that I can do, make little changes all over. Just consider where I was then and where I could improve.
“A few years ago I was really concerned with what body weight I was playing at. At one stage, I was playing at 124 kilos and I was really struggling although I felt reasonably good at scrum time. My bounce around the pitch was pretty poor because I was carrying all this excess weight and, to be honest, it wasn’t good weight for me. I was a bit heavier around the midriff.
“I have slimmed down a lot. I am at 117/118 kilos now and I feel way better around the pitch. I have more energy and I can bring more to the game. I don’t feel too bad in scrum time as well so. I am lighter, I am more energetic and I can provide more for the team.”
Describing himself as “absolutely thrilled” to be back in the mix, the Canberra-born prop said: “My girlfriend’s family are all from the west of Ireland, the likes of Galway, Connemara. They’re all super proud of me and they’re coming up to the game this weekend. Look, it’s a massive honour and I can’t wait to run out there on Saturday in front of them and in front of all the Irish fans.”