Joe Schmidt has gone for the most experienced Ireland starting 15 available to play New Zealand in Chicago.
Ireland’s record against New Zealand is atrocious, with just one draw to go with the 27 defeats in the 28 games between the sides. Despite many exciting young players knocking on the door, head coach Schmidt has picked several veteran figures for the historic game at Soldier Field.
Ryan in ahead of Dillane
Ireland’s front row effectively picks itself, especially since Mike Ross was left out of the squad. The loosehead slot is nailed down by Jack McGrath these days. Cian Healy looks much closer to his former self after having the summer off, but McGrath is the more rounded player. Rory Best starts as captain with the explosive Sean Cronin on the bench. After a strong summer tour Tadgh Furlong looks to be the future at tighthead with Finlay Bealham as backup.
The first real question on the teamsheet is in the second row. Ireland’s first choice pair would be Devin Toner and Iain Henderson, but Henderson is out with a shoulder injury. Henderson is a difficult player to replace, as he combines excellent set piece play with a devastating leg drive and turn of pace. Ireland are left with the choice of the set piece master Donnacha Ryan, or the dynamic carrier Ultan Dillane. Dillane has been excellent for Ireland this year, but mostly as an impact substitute. Ryan, a veteran of two world cup squads, has been in great form for Munster. His selection suggests a tighter gameplan than Ireland played in June.
No natural openside
It’s a positive sign that Ireland can afford to leave out Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony. Both players haven’t had enough games to prove they are match fit yet, but past Ireland sides would squeeze them in. Such are the riches in the backrow for Ireland, it’s hard to know if they would make it in fully fit.
What isn’t up for debate is Jamie Heaslip at number 8. The Leinster star and former Ireland captain is playing better than ever. He’s got his dancing feet back, which makes up for his relative lack of brute strength. As a penetrative ball carrier and top class set piece player, he’s irreplaceable. At blindside, it seems impossible to leave out CJ Stander. The heartbeat of Munster, a man that could run through the great wall of China without batting an eyelid.
This leaves a spot at seven, and two choices in the squad. Josh Van Der Flier is the natural openside, a rangey runner with a nose for a ruck. While he’s only played twice at test level, he was good in both games. He also has a tendency to score tries, which wouldn’t harm. The other option is Jordi Murphy, an abrasive player, something of a jack of all trades. If you want a man to put his body on the line, he’s your guy. Adept at 6, 7 or 8 to boot. Murphy gets the spot, making it a pretty beefy back row.
Defense instead of spark
The halfbacks pick themselves and they need to have big games. Conor Murray needs to be as sharp as he was in the 2013 New Zealand game. If Ireland can’t match the tempo of the opposition the game will quickly escape from them. That tempo needs to be dictated by the scrumhalf. Johnny Sexton will have to have his best game in a while too, as he’ll see far less of the ball than usual. If Sexton can impose himself on the game, it makes Ireland’s chance of winning skyrocket.
Both players will need to play the full 80 minutes, as uncapped Joey Carbery is joined by out of form Kieran Marmion on the bench.
As for the outside backs, some things were certain. Robbie Henshaw is the inside centre. Andrew Trimble is on one wing. Jared Payne will play at 13 because he is an exceptional defender in that position. While his provincial form and the summer tour prove he’s most natural at fullback, Joe Schmidt wants that reliable outside edge defence. The alternative is Garry Ringrose, a huge talent and electric runner. Ringrose will feature sooner rather than later, but to make his debut at 13 against possibly the greatest ever rugby team would be a baptism of fire.
Payne at 13 means either Simon Zebo or Rob Kearney at fullback. Were Zebo to play at 15, given Keith Earls‘ suspension, Craig Gilroy would have to step in on the wing. Gilroy isn’t a player that has had many chances under Schmidt. His attacking game not making up enough for defensive frailties, so he’d rather avoid selecting him. With Zebo on the wing, Kearney fills the last spot. Kearney hasn’t been playing very well, but with 69 caps and a wealth of experience, this might be his day.
Experienced Ireland to keep it tight
These selection decisions point to a fairly clear gameplan for Ireland. Attacking play has taken a backseat to defensive surety. Ireland will likely look to play with a lot of one out runners and kick to the corners. Kearney’s backfield coverage should help deal with Aaron Smith‘s box kicking game.
When the game opens up at 50-60 minutes, Ireland have attacking options on the bench. Cronin, Healy, Bealham, Dillane, Van Der Flier, Marmion, Carbery and Ringrose all pose big running threats. If Ireland are still in the game at that point, they have weapons to pull off the win.