Talking points ahead of Saturday’s autumn international between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium…
Rugby World Cup 2019 yardstick
Speaking to media this week, Joe Schmidt believes the next two matches will hand Ireland a clear World Cup 2019 yardstick.
Ireland host Argentina and back-to-back world champions New Zealand in Dublin on successive Saturdays, with head coach Schmidt expecting a stern battle against both nations.
Argentina dumped Ireland out of the 2015 World Cup with a fine 43-20 victory in the quarter-finals, while the All Blacks have topped the world rankings since 2009.
Ireland could overhaul the All Blacks into world number one spot before the year is out, but only with victory in Dublin on November 17 – and Schmidt knows his side could be facing a defining few days ahead.
Asked how telling the next 10 days could prove with next year’s World Cup in mind, Schmidt replied: “Yes, where we are right now, it will tell us a lot and I think regardless of what happens in the next 10 days, everything is a benchmark.
“In particular, this is our first southern hemisphere game of this series and you saw in Australia (in June), the way that southern hemisphere rugby is played is worth a fair bit of freedom.
“The Argentines would probably be a little bit more combative at the ruck than some of the other teams.
“So we’re going to have to really be on our mettle otherwise guys like (Agustin) Creevy and (Pablo) Matera will get on that ball very quickly.”
Ireland lost a glut of frontline players to injury for that last-eight loss to Argentina at the last World Cup, with Johnny Sexton ruled out and replaced by Ian Madigan just days before the Cardiff clash.
Schmidt has diligently built Ireland’s depth since that day, in a bid to ensure no such possible repeat come the next global gathering in Japan.
Asked to chart the differences between facing Argentina in 2015 and now, Schmidt said: “Well our number 10 has trained all week; he hasn’t had a 20-minute intro to run the team and started six games in the previous 12 months.
“I thought that was really tough and I thought the kid really stood up and did a great job. We got back into the game after being hesitant.
“No matter how much you try to build that confidence, it’s men like Sean O’Brien that have a contagious confidence.
“He’s robust, he’s experienced and people see him do things on the pitch and think ‘yeah, I can get into this game on the back of that’.
“We didn’t quite have those players that day, losing the likes of Sean O’Brien, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Johnny (Sexton).
“One of the great things that’s happened to us is that we’ve had to make last-minute changes a number of times in the last three years.
“The players are incredibly excited about what’s coming up and they’re nervous about Argentina and how good they are. So there’s a bit of anxiety floating around which is not necessarily the worst thing.”
Ireland’s centre conundrum
Schmidt also admitted he will have some selection headaches once Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell are all fit – each centre played a role in their 2018 Grand Slam success.
Ringrose will miss Saturday’s Dublin Test clash with Argentina due to a minor hip complaint but should be fit in time to take on New Zealand, while Farrell has been out of action with a knee injury since February.
Aki and Henshaw will link up in midfield against the Pumas, with Jordan Larmour retaining his place at full-back as Rob Kearney battles a shoulder injury.
British and Irish Lions centre Henshaw has this week been tipped for a run at his first senior position of full-back, but Ireland boss Schmidt does not feel shoehorning Henshaw in at 15 would solve the potential conundrum of fielding all his top talent at once.
Schmidt said: “He’s had very little time there.
“I know he played a lot of it and was described as favouring it in the week, but he favours contributing to the team to the best of his ability wherever he’s selected.
“Robbie’s the sort of guy you could pick at seven and he’d go out and do a good job of it. I think he’s great in the positions he’s played for us, both at 12 and 13.
“I wouldn’t have too much hesitation putting him back to 15. He’s got a lot of the attributes. It would be a very ad hoc preparation for him to slot back into 15, as in the last few years he hasn’t had too much game-time there.
“So I think you just need a little bit of time to recalibrate if you are going to play in a position. Now, is there anyone more capable of recalibrating? Probably not too many.
“So it is something that has been in the back of our minds for a long time as an option if we needed to go there.
“The one thing I would say, it’s probably not our first option, and it’s probably not something we’re going to necessarily suddenly default too.”
And quizzed on how he can best combine his three top midfield talents, Schmidt replied: “When they are all fit I’ll let you know. I’m not sure myself at this stage.”
‘Freak’ Larmour in from the start again
Having scored a hat-trick against Italy in Chicago last week in his maiden Test start, Jordan Larmour has a chance to impress at full-back again on Saturday in the absence of Kearney.
Larmour’s pacy attacking abilities have put him on a path to fulfilling his “scary” potential, according to Ireland team-mate Luke McGrath.
“He’s a freak; I get the opportunity to see him do that the whole time in training,” said McGrath.
“Some of his tries, the one at the end (against Italy) was incredible. He set me up for one as well; he can do it all.
“It’s scary to think how young he is and the potential he could fulfil. He will keep the head down and keep going but he is definitely one to watch.
“He has such good feet, he can attack from everywhere. He can also kick. He carries that threat that if you do kick poorly to him he will run it back and make yards.
“He can step off both feet which is a huge talent. He puts any one-on-one defenders in trouble.
“He wants to get the ball in his hands all the time. That’s incredibly exciting and it’s great to play with because it gives you options. Two-sided attack; he’s getting better and better and it’s going to be exciting to see where he goes.”
Ireland: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Kieran Marmion; 1 Cian Healy, 2 Rory Best (c), 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Iain Henderson, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 7 Sean O’Brien, 8 CJ Stander.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Dan Leavy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Andrew Conway.
Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 12 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Tomas Cubelli, 1 Santiago Garcia Botta, 2 Agustin Creevy, 3 Santiago Medrano, 4 Matias Alemanno, 5 Tomas Lavanini,5 Tomas Lavanini, 6 Pablo Matera (c), 7 Guido Petti, 8 Javier Ortega Desio.
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Juan Pablo Zeiss, 18 Lucio Sordoni, 19 Rodrigo Bruni, 20 Tomas Lezana, 21 Gonzalo Bertranou, 22 Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, 23 Matias Moroni.