Ireland v Barbarians, Thomond Park, 7.45pm: At face value this looks like a bit of an end-of-season jaunt. Then again, with Joe Schmidt involved and the World Cup on the horizon as well as summer, that is more likely to apply to the demob-happy Barbarians. The chances for some aspiring Irish players to nudge Schmidt in the ribs are suddenly running out.
The primary purpose of this exercise was to keep all the prospective members of Ireland’s World Cup squad in season until this week, thereby ensuring they had four weeks’ holidays before re-assembling for pre-season at the end of June simultaneously.
Sod’s Law decreed that Munster would be involved in Saturday’s Pro12 final, while Connacht’s and Ulster’s seasons endured until the bitter denouements of last Friday and Sunday. Hence Limerick hosts a Leinster/Ulster composite selection, featuring 10 Leinster players in the starting line-up and six more on the bench.
Even the Baabaas have three Leinster players in their line-up, with their retiring former lock Nathan Hines added to their bench. Yet, a little surprisingly, 16,000 tickets had been sold by yesterday, thus putting the attendance on a par with Paul O’Connell’s Thomond Park farewell.
While Schmidt’s selection features two lightly uncapped Leinster youngsters in centre Colm O’Shea and replacement winger
– which seemed rather pointed in light of Matt O’Connor granting them only one game apiece this season on the final day in Edinburgh – interestingly, the Irish coach namechecked
The World Cup might well come too soon for Furlong, although with the latest injury cloud hanging over Marty Moore you never know, while Tuohy’s World Cup prospects have been endangered by the impressive return to action of Donnacha Ryan.
Opportunity also knocks for Dave Kearney and Craig Gilroy (three or four out of nine wing contenders) and in a thinner cupboard at inside centre for Luke Marshall, last involved on the 2014 tour to Argentina, with Stuart McCloskey and Noel Reid to have their opportunity with Emerging Ireland’s three games in the Tbilisi Cup. Similarly, another Ulsterman, Chris Henry, will welcome being back in the fold, while Ian Madigan starts ahead of Paddy Jackson.
Schmidt preferred to keep things “fluid” rather than have a list of probables and possibles for his 31-man World Cup squad, and said he and his fellow coaches had about 44 names in mind, which will be swelled by another “three to six players” from that Emerging Ireland squad. To that end Schmidt will attend their third game against their Georgian hosts.
With Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock also touring with Emerging Ireland, Leinster’s Ben Marshall (whom Connacht yesterday confirmed will be joining them next season) and Jordi Murphy are on the bench.
Schmidt said he intended giving all 23 players a game this evening, including the 20-year-old Kelleher, who he said “has a relatively special acceleration and balance. I think he is a very skilful player, and very good under the ball.” The 23-year-old O’Shea, recently graduated from the Leinster academy, has been “incredibly unfortunate” with injuries since Schmidt gave him his first two games at inside centre three seasons ago.
“I have seen glimpses that have been promising and I guess this is an opportunity to demonstrate a little bit more of that,” said Schmidt, who noted Kelleher would be “coming up against Joe Rokocoko, 60-plus caps and 47 (test) tries. So he must be pretty excited.”
The game takes place in the aftermath of Matt O’Connor’s departure from Leinster. Schmidt had no part in that decision, and he met with Leinster manager Guy Easterby in seeking to improve relations with O’Connor and Leinster before learning of the decision by the Leinster Professional Game Board. “I was as surprised as anyone.”
Yet it did come in the aftermath of Schmidt and IRFU performance director Dave Nucifora calling a press conference to publicly rebuke O’Connor for his public complaints of player availability.
Sharing his teammates' "surprise" at Leinster's decision, Jamie Heaslip revealed he had dinner with O'Connor last Monday, before mere mention of Shane Jennings prompted him to declare good-naturedly: "Ah, it's going to be a pain in the ass. You can quote that," before launching into a lengthy tribute to his retiring teammate.
While captaining the Baabaas was a “fantastic” way for Jennings to end his career, Heaslip added: “It’s going to be a nightmare for us.”
But despite Jennings, and the lack of experience in some positions and combinations in this makeshift Irish line-up, especially compared to the vast experience of the admittedly makeshift Baabaas, Ireland ought to have more cohesion. And in a World Cup year, more desire too.
IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); D Kearney (Leinster), C O’Shea (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), C Gilroy (Ulster); I Madigan (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Strauss (Leinster), T Furlong (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), D Tuohy (Ulster), R Diack (Ulster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster, capt). Replacements: R Herring (Ulster), M Bent (Leinster), M Ross (Leinster), B Marshall (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster), L McGrath (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), C Kelleher (Leinster).
BARBARIANS: Z Kirchner (Leinster); A Cuthbert (Cardiff), J Rokocoko (Bayonne), W Olivier (Montpellier), D Smith (Toulon); J Gopperth (Leinster), R Pienaar (Ulster); R Tejerizo (Tucuman), D Fourie (Lyon), A Jones (Cardiff), R Capo Ortega (Castres), K Mikautadze (Toulon), S Jennings (Leinster, capt), G Vosloo (Toulon), R Holani (Wild Knights). Replacements: D Ward (Harlequins), S Taumoepeau (Castres), M Diaz (Pampas), N Hines (Sale), G Smith (Lyon), T Cubelli (Belgrano), T Pisi (Suntory Sungoliath), G Aplon (Grenoble).
Referee: G Garner (England).
Forecast: Ireland to win.