Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago
THE PRESENCE OF just three Irish sports writers, a travelling photographer and one local television crew at Ireland’s press conference in their team hotel in Chicago yesterday might support arguments that Saturday’s fixture against Italy isn’t of the utmost importance.
Indeed, the fact that Ireland and Italy have both left some of their frontline players at home for this trip might also suggest that those who argue that November Tests can amount to little more than ‘friendlies’ have some grounds for believing as much.
But to focus on those who are missing, as well as the obvious relative lack of interest in the game compared to Ireland’s trip here in 2016, would be to ignore the opportunity for players from both nations to make a statement less than a year out from the World Cup.
Jack McGrath and Quinn Roux in the gym at University of Illinois in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
And while the likes of Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson have remained at home in Ireland, Joe Schmidt’s travelling squad still contains heavyweights such as Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner and Bundee Aki.
The mixture of proven key men with some of Ireland’s lesser-experienced players should make for a worthwhile contest on Saturday at Soldier Field.
“I guess this is a really important game for us for a number of reasons but there were certain guys that we felt like didn’t need to travel,” said Ireland assistant coach Simon Easterby yesterday in Chicago.
“Some guys don’t react particularly well to long travel and then you’ve got to go back and train fully next week hopefully for Argentina.
“So there are a number of factors around the selection process but Tadhg and Dev were two players that played a big part in the game here two seasons ago [against the All Blacks]. They’ve played a big part in a lot of our success over the last couple of seasons.
“So having the spine of some really important depth in terms of experience in some positions was really crucial.
“Then for others, it’s a really big opportunity for the likes of Luke [McGrath] and John Cooney to get the chance to step up and put their hand up for the next few months.”
The halfbacks will be one of the areas of most interest this weekend, with Joey Carbery likely to steer the ship from out-half and Ross Byrne set for his debut off the bench.
McGrath and Cooney, meanwhile, will have opportunities at scrum-half with Conor Murray missing and Kieran Marmion remaining in Ireland.
Luke McGrath is set for an opportunity on Saturday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
Given Murray and Sexton’s usual levels of influence for Ireland, this week will be a valuable experience for Carbery, Byrne, Cooney and McGrath in terms of leading the week’s preparation and influencing Saturday’s game against Italy.
With regular captain Rory Best absent and vice-captains Sexton and Peter O’Mahony in Ireland, this trip also gives Schmidt and his coaching team an opportunity to develop the depth of their leadership group too.
Rhys Ruddock has been appointed captain for the week and was a relatively easy choice, having led Ireland before.
“Partly because he’s done it before, partly because we have real confidence in his leadership and he’s another guy, a quality individual, that guys will look to and will respond to,” said Easterby.
“He led really well for us in USA and Japan in 2017 and he’s definitely a guy we see a lot of leadership qualities in.”
The captaincy and the fact that Ruddock hasn’t played for Ireland since November 2017 will ensure his eagerness and energy, and there are stories of motivation across Ireland’s 26-man squad.
Among them is that of Tadhg Beirne, who won his first two Ireland caps in Australia in June and has settled in impressively at Munster.
The Kildare man will hope for a prolonged opportunity to underline his quality to Schmidt against Italy, in turn pushing himself further into contention for the Argentina and All Blacks Tests to come.
“He hits good lines, he’s a good footballer and he understands the game,” said Easterby of Beirne.
“He’s a bloody tough guy as well and difficult to get off the ball but he’s also brought another element to his game – lineout calling is something he’s started to do with Munster and it’s great to see they’ve given him that opportunity to do.
Tadhg Beirne will be keen to impress Schmidt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“Is he getting better? I’d say definitely and it helps when he’s working with guys he potentially will play with in international rugby.
“Hopefully, that transition is easier for him. He did well in the summer with limited time off the bench but he’s certainly one that has got better this season and hopefully will continue to do so.”
Ireland also have two uncapped players in Chicago in Ross Byrne and Will Addison, both of whom will be eager for their first Test-level exposure as the World Cup looms ever closer.
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“Ross came with us to Australia and unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity to get a cap,” said Easterby of Byrne.
“He’s been really consistent for Leinster when he gets opportunities and I think he’s working in a good environment behind a world-class operator there in Johnny.
“He’s shown a great deal of maturity over the last couple of seasons when he’s had plenty of rugby for Leinster at certain times and we feel like he’s deserving of that opportunity to step up to the next level.”
26-year-old Addison, meanwhile, is a good bet for Ireland’s World Cup squad given his ability to play across the backline.
Given his impressive early form for Ulster after a summer move from Sale Sharks and his pedigree, Addison is certainly one to watch in Ireland colours too.
“He’s a good guy who has settled in really well to Ulster and performed really well in multiple positions,” said Easterby. ”That’s probably a factor that holds him in good stead in that he can play in a number of positions across the backline.
“Looking towards the World Cup, that’s vital to have players that can play in and not drop the standard of the quality of that position just because they’re covering a few.”
Originally published at 06.30
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