Joe Schmidt has named his 30-man panel for the two-game series in Argentina – and it’s not in nice places like Buenos Aires and Mendoza, but swampy, tropical Resistencia and rural Tucuman, where Besty might feel at home. Sling another cow on the giant open barbie there, ranch hand! The wine will be great, sure, but the nightlife might not cut it. We discussed the topic last week, and mooted that the most important bits of business are beginning the process of replacing O’Driscoll and winning the series.
It’s been a long old season and a good few bodies are deemed too tired or injured for the trip. In the past, the mantra from Irish coaches has been ‘these are the games the players are rested for’, but for the likes of Cian Healy, Tommy Bowe and Sean O’Brien, it’s been decided that they’d be better off recovering from whatever niggles they’re carrying. It must have been tempting to bring O’Brien and Bowe, who have relatively little rugby this season and could be reasonably fresh as a result, but discretion is often the better part of valour, and they’ll have the summer off to come back with renewed vigour for next season. There are bigger fish to fry.
Hookers: Rory Best, Damien Varley and Rob Herring
Herring is the beneficiary of a lengthy injury list, with Cronin, Sherry and O’Strauss all injured and he has deputized well for Besty. Best himself has only just returned to fitness, but given the lack of first-rate alternatives, it seems logical to pick him.
Props: Mike Ross, Marty Moore, James Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne and Jack McGrath
With Healy being given a free pass for the summer, James Cronin gets to travel. He hasn’t quite shot the lights out since his eye-catching cameo against Leinster last autumn, but there’s no rush and he seems to be made of the right stuff. He’s picked to get exposure to the test squad. Most likely he’ll be holding tackle bags, with McGrath the likely starter and Kilcoyne first reserve. It’s become a position of remarkable depth in the last season. On the tighthead side, Moore is likely to get his first start in a green shirt. Mike Ross tours again – we were incredulous he was brought to the US and Canada last year, although this makes more sense – you don’t want to be relying on Stephen Archer against top rate opposition.
Locks: Iain Henderson, Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner
Ireland look a bit light with just three. Presumably Robbie Diack and Rhys Ruddock are providing cover should it be needed. With Donnacha Ryan injured and Dan Tuohy operating at less than 100% options are thin on the ground, although Mike McCarthy might have been one, though his star has waned. The players named are uniformly excellent. Henderson had his best game of the season against Leinster, and just as Devin Toner looked to be running out of puff, he had a fine performance in the same game. O’Connell is captain. It will be interesting to see if Henderson gets a chance to mix it with Patricio Albacete and co.
Backrow: Lots of players NOT FROM MUNSTER
Back in the Six Nations we had the Great Tommy O’Donnell Outrage. But Schmidt was proved entirely correct in his selection of Murphy over O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s form has been nowhere near his 2012-13 level and he has subsequently found himself dropped by Munster, failing to even make the bench in ther last game. Never mind, let’s move on to Sean Dougall Outrage. With O’Brien not selected and O’Mahony injured, Rhys Ruddock is liable to get a first start for Ireland, and the uncapped Robbie Diack may feature at some point, though Jordi Murphy appears to be the most versatile man for the bench. Mr Indestructible, Jamie Heaslip, will almost certainly be relied upon for another 160 minutes of high-grade rugby, and Chris Henry will also ensure some degree of continuity. Diack is probably the most POM-for-POM replacement, but you wouldn’t think he’s at this level. The bigger question is how you re-integrate Sean O’Brien (presumably in November) – someone has got to miss out. Fez is injured again, and surely won’t wear green again – sniff.
Half Backs: Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Kieran Marmion, Jonny Sexton and Paddy Jackson
No surprise that Jonny Sexton is picked, especially with O’Driscoll and Dorce missing. He presumably assumes the role of backline leader. As usual, Ian Madigan’s inclusion/exclusion [delete as appropriate] becomes a talking point. He’s back on everyone’s radar after Saturday’s stunning match-swinging performance, but those whose memories extend back to before then may remember that his form has been in the doldrums since the Six Nations. Paddy Jackson has yet to have that match-dominating performance that elevates him to the level occupied by Sexton and O’Gara before him – the new Toby Flood anyone? – but he has had a solid season (to be fair to Jackson, with Pienaar inside, he’s unlikely to have the opportunity any time soon either). Kieran Marmion’s selection is welcome – Reddan will slow down at some point – like Cronin he is no doubt bought along to learn as much as possible from his seniors.
Centres: Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw
The great one retires and 97-year old Gordon D’arcy gets to put his feet up. It’s a great chance for Luke Marshall to get the jump on him. McFadden presumably provides cover. At outside centre, the new era begins, and whichever centre gets selected to start is probably worth persevering with for both games to give them the best possible chance of settling in. No pressure Mr. New 13, you’ve only got to replace the best player in the world, like, evah! Angry Darren Cave feels like the sensible option to us, but if Anscombe is shuffling him around, it becomes a little muddier – no point in investing gametime in a player who might not start there for his province.
Back three: Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Rob Kearney, Felix Jones
He’s back! The red corner will breathe a sigh of relief that Simon Zebo has returned to the squad. Joe Schmidt needed little prompting to remind the Munster flyer that he has things to work on, but since the Six Nations it’s been hard to fault his attitude. He used the media not to whine about his lot, but to let the public know he was going to work as hard as he could, and to these eyes anyway, appeared to show great desire on the pitch. Notable contributions included a brilliant try-saving tackle against Toulon that kept Munster in the match, and his restart-chase against Toulon resulted in him scoring a try a few phases later. Surely the very details that Schmidt was looking for him to improve upon? Ireland are crying out for a bit of stardust in the backline, so hopefully he will get his chance. Keith Earls is back from injury and has looked dangerous without quite cutting loose in recent weeks; the rest pick themselves with Dave Kearney now injured and Tommy Bowe given the summer to rest.
Team to start the first test, maybe, possibly, dependant on all players getting through the Pro12 final, not getting injured in training and not missing the flight: Kearney, Trimble, Cave, Marshall, Earls, Sexton, Murray, McGrath, Best, Moore, O’Connell, Toner, Ruddock, Henry, Heaslip. A nice blend of the established and the younger. NWJMB would be a brave selection alongside POC – he will likely scrum down at tighthead lock when Muller moves on, so it’s the future .. if Toner ever stops improving.