Joe Schmidt has challenged his Test rookies to survive on their wits, not rely on the experience of those around them, after naming an inexperienced backline to face old foes Argentina tomorrow, writes Simon Lewis.
It will not just be the jerseys that are green at the Aviva Stadium when Ireland meet the Pumas for the first time since that fateful 43-20 World Cup quarter-final defeat in Cardiff in November 2015. From numbers 11 through to 14, the collective cap count of four for the two wings and two centres suggests a certain rawness at this level also.
That is both by accident and design, with Leinster’s Adam Byrne long since pencilled in for a Test debut in this final encounter of the 2017 Guinness Series, opposite fellow wing Jacob Stockdale, so impressive in winning his third cap a fortnight ago in the record 38-3 win over South Africa.
Head coach Schmidt’s best-laid plans for the Irish midfield, however, have been scuppered by a hamstring strain suffered by frontline centre Robbie Henshaw during Tuesday’s training session at Carton House. It had been his intention to again pair Henshaw with his former Connacht pal Bundee Aki, their reunion having proved effective in the defeat of the Springboks, as the newly-qualified Aki made his first appearance at Test level.
Instead, there is an unexpected call-up for Munster’s outside centre Chris Farrell, whose debut last Saturday in the second-string’s narrow win against Fiji was solid, if not spectacular, and he is given the opportunity to enhance his World Cup prospects much sooner than anticipated.
It is not what Schmidt envisaged for this rematch against the team whose victory in Cardiff over his injury-depleted squad has informed his every selection since in terms of developing a strength in depth to compensate for the loss of world-class, first-choice players. Missing Jared Payne, Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls, as well as Henshaw, Farrell will be expected to sink or swim alongside fellow one-capper Aki.
Last Saturday’s meeting with ninth-ranked Fiji produced a starting XV of mostly fringe players that the head coach specifically wanted to see perform under stress. This weekend has now produced similar circumstances for that inexperienced quartet, though it is a battle-hardened forward pack, save for the inclusion of 21-year-old Leinster lock James Ryan at Devin Toner’s expense. Those backs may have the 77 caps of Rob Kearney behind them at full-back and the world-class axis of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton pulling the strings, but Schmidt knows it is a big test against a full-strength Argentina side.
“Particularly with the type of player they have, that is going to be a real challenge for us,” said Schmidt yesterday. “[Matias] Moroni’s footwork, the footwork of [Santiago] Gonzalez-Iglesias, [fly-half Nicholas] Sanchez himself and then the back three [of Joaquin Tuculet, Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli].
“They’ve built some really good experience in the Rugby Championship and that’s going to be a real challenge for us. Robbie being unavailable wasn’t something we’d foreseen, he would have added more experience to that three-quarter-line, but part of the attraction for us is that, a little like last week, guys will have to independently survive and make good decisions, not have somebody directing them around the pitch.
“We would rather we had someone right there to assist them, but sometimes that doesn’t happen, someone gets injured early in the game and destabilises them. We want to be able to play our way through destabilised periods.”
There have been several occasions since that Argentina defeat 24 months ago when Ireland’s resources have been stretched in such a manner against tier-one nations and Schmidt cited three of them.
“That really started last November. We scrambled our way to a win over Australia with a very makeshift backline. There was some real experience in that backline, as well. Keith Earls was outstanding that day, as he went from wing to centre and did a super job. We’ve had a few opportunities to try and survive big games when we haven’t had the preparation we wanted.
“Conor [Murray] pulled out on the Thursday we played England [in the final round of the last Six Nations], Rob Kearney was unavailable on the Thursday, so Jared Payne had to step in [at full-back] with very little training and then pre-match Jamie Heaslip had to step out and Dan Leavy stepped onto the bench.
“They all acquitted themselves really well, including Luke McGrath who came from third choice [scrum-half] into second-choice and into the fire at the end and negotiated his way through it really well; no different than Joey Carbery in Chicago last year.
“It’s not always going to work out perfectly like that. I suppose the more opportunities we have to test people in those situations, the more they’ll learn about themselves, the more they’ll be better equipped to cope in the Six Nations or further.”
Schmidt had options in midfield, including pushing Aki out one place to the No 13 jersey and bringing in an inside centre, such as Stuart McCloskey, who started next to Farrell against Fiji, but the head coach said he did not wish to throw the Connacht midfielder into another new position at Test level so soon after his debut against the Boks.
“We were really happy with Bundee, his tackle count was high and accurate, his ability to transfer ball was nice and compact and accurate, his decision making is good, he connects well defensively.
“All of those things are positive. It was just the fact that Robbie trained fully on Monday and it wasn’t until the Tuesday that [his hamstring] really started to nag at him.
“At that stage, we were halfway through the week and Bundee, as much as he has had a lot of experience at Super Rugby level, he hasn’t really had that experience at test level. So we did not want to be shifting him around too much and Chris plays at 13 for Munster and played 13 every time he played for Grenoble over the last three years, so we back him in that spot.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.