Ireland’s big guns are back as the stakes are raised with the visits of Argentina and New Zealand over the next two weeks but Joe Schmidt has warned his front-line stars not to take their places for granted.
A week on from a less experienced selection putting Italy to the sword in Chicago, head coach Schmidt has recalled the rump of his Grand Slam-winning side for tomorrow’s Guinness Series opener against Argentina at the Aviva Stadium.
Only three of the starters from last Saturday’s 54-7 rout of the Italians at Soldier Field have survived the cut, with hat-trick hero Jordan Larmour only getting his chance to add a second start to his fledgling Test career due to first-choice full-back Rob Kearney’s failure to recover adequately this week from a shoulder injury.
Otherwise, this is a heavyweight Ireland outfit preparing to go toe-to-toe with a Pumas squad reenergised by the appointment of former front-rower Mario Ledesma as head coach and determined to give a better account of themselves than last year’s tired-looking 28-19 Dublin defeat.
Hooker Rory Best returns to captain the side he led to the Grand Slam last March after missing the summer tour to Australia through injury and brings with him vice-captains Johnny Sexton at fly-half and Peter O’Mahony at blindside flanker while there are also recalls for No 8 CJ Stander and openside Sean O’Brien, named for the first time since that November 2017 game against tomorrow’s opposition.
Locks Iain Henderson and James Ryan, props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, centre Robbie Henshaw and wing Keith Earls complete the cavalry who were rested last week with these big games in mind, but Schmidt reminded them all to keep looking over their shoulders.
A week after starting Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, and Jack Conan in his starting back-row with Jordi Murphy as their covering replacement, Schmidt said: “We have four different guys and I think they’re looking over their shoulder.
“They know that there has been a little bit of a foundation laid by four other guys, and there’s four guys who need to build on that foundation in the context of selection further and in the context of making sure we can be as competitive as possible.”
The same applies to the rest of the squad, Schmidt adding: “The more they are looking over their shoulder, in a glance, and then getting their eyes front-focused... I think anyone runs a little bit harder when they can hear the breathing of someone behind them, and I don’t want looking around, I just want them running a bit harder so that they can keep that distance.
“So as I’ve said, some guys really impressed last week and it’s up to this week’s group to really keep those guys at bay.
“It gives you those really good headaches that you want to have in selection.
“The coaching group, we hummed and hawed a lot last night, we went backwards and forwards and then went, ‘Righto, let’s sleep on it’ and then made some decisions this morning.
“So that’s kind of the situation you want to be in, and in the end, we’ve deferred for as well as guys played last week, we’ve tried to include guys who are desperately keen to put their hand up and train well on Tuesday.
“CJ Stander similarly, James Ryan in the context of his performances in the last 12 months. Iain Henderson in the context of the experience he brings and he’s continuing to develop as a line-out expert for us as well. He’s a very intelligent man.
“Up front, Cian, Besty, and Tadhg, they’ve got a pretty good relationship and they’ll be pretty keen to go.
“Out the back, to bring in Johnny, that’s probably no shock. He’s just been named as one of the nominees for World Player of the Year and I think that’s on a really solid foundation of world-class performances and world-class moments that needed to be absolutely spot on, that he ticked off the list.
“Keith Earls’ performances in recent times have also made him an incredibly difficult player to dislodge for someone else in the team. So for guys coming in it’s in respect of Argentina, it’s in respect to the performances they’ve put together in recent times. It’s going to be interesting to see if we can get our cohesion.
“We trained once last week and I did think we didn’t quite have a rhythm on the first 40 minutes. They built into it. We can’t wait for 40 minutes and be 31-7 down just after half-time like Australia were (before the Wallabies won 45-34 this summer). It’s not very often Argentina will give up a lead like that.”
Nor will Schmidt allow his players the luxury of being “human” and letting their minds drift towards next week’s visit of the All Blacks, the second of three sell-out games in this month’s Guinness Series, also including Ireland versus the USA on November 24.
‘Yeah, they’re conditioned to a degree that they’re not that human because one of the dangers that they understand fully is any look that far ahead, they compromise what they deliver this weekend, and then next week they’re really looking forward to the game but watching it from the stands, that’s not where they want to be.
“They want to have their boots on and they want to be right in among it and their best opportunity to do that, on the back of some really performances last week, is to make sure their performances are very similar.
“Making sure that they are accurate, they’re doing a good job for the team. If we can get that, we know we’re going to be competitive. If we’re competitive, we find that the Aviva is a fantastic place to play for us.