Looking at the side fielded by Joe Schmidt, I couldn’t help but feel that, regardless of the decision the New Zealander makes at the end of the month regarding his tenure as Irish coach, the future beyond the 2019 World Cup looks bright, given the vast majority of the side that swatted away the Italian challenge with contemptuous ease will just be coming into their prime for the 2023 event in France.
Behind the scrum, the likes of Jordan Larmour — sublime at Soldier Field — Jacob Stockdale, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Luke McGrath, and Ross Byrne will have bagged enormous experience at international level and will be leading the charge.
Up front, Niall Scannell, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, and Jordi Murphy should all be hardened professionals at that stage, with a wealth of big games behind them and plenty to offer. Of those held in reserve for the games against Argentina and New Zealand, James Ryan could well be Irish captain by then and Iain Henderson will also be in his prime.
If Schmidt decides to move on after the World Cup, whoever takes over will have a very difficult act to follow but will inherit a talented pool of promising players coupled with a hardcore of experienced British and Irish Lions. On that basis alone, Schmidt’s legacy is already assured, not to mention his impressive list of achievements in terms of silverware delivered with Leinster and Ireland.
Right now, from Schmidt’s perspective, the future extends just 12 months to next year’s World Cup, and events of the next three weeks will play a big part in his squad’s preparedness for that tournament.
On the face of it, playing an under strength Azzurri side last weekend who, for all kinds of understandable reasons prioritised their game against Georgia next Saturday, was never likely to tell us much about the capability of players such as Will Addison, Ross Byrne, and John Cooney to make the leap to international rugby. Schmidt’s decision to remain at home until last Wednesday and work with the body of players who will face the Pumas and All Blacks was recognition of that.
He was always likely to learn more observing Addison in midfield against Racing 92, Leicester Tigers, and Scarlets in the Champions Cup than in the 19-minute cameo appearance that marked his international debut off the bench at full-back.
By including those fringe players in the wider squad, Schmidt will garner a lot more information over the next two weeks about their temperament, ability to absorb new information quickly around Ireland’s defence and attack strategy, along with the specific nuances he has added to their job description at the breakdown.
He will also benchmark their skillset under pressure and mental toughness in a new and challenging environment.
That will shape the pecking order in the squad as much as anything he might have picked up from their performance in Chicago.
The win over Italy reminded us, once again, of the potential Larmour offers from full back at the highest level. While he won’t be afforded anything like the space and defensive frailty he exposed so ruthlessly against a host of flapping Italian defenders when Ireland meet tier one opposition over the next two weekends, there’s no doubt that Larmour’s pace, power, and stepping ability has already placed the Argentinian and New Zealand defence coaches on red alert.
Schmidt must now decide whether those talents are better utilized off the bench, against tiring defences in the final quarter, or include it from the outset at the expense of the experience and solidity Rob Kearney brings.
Kearney’s recent shoulder injury may well solve that dilemma for the Argentina game. If that proves to be the case, then Larmour has a massive opportunity to hold onto the jersey for the New Zealand test.
And what of Argentina rugby? The Pumas have gone through an incredibly demanding period of change since unceremoniously dumping Ireland out of the 2015 World Cup on a day that still haunts Schmidt and has served to drive his every move since.
Two months after reaching the semi-finals of the global event, the structure of Argentinian rugby changed appreciably with the inclusion of a first ever, home-based squad in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition, something they had been striving for for years.
The advent of the Jaguares enabled the Argentinian Union to contract over 40 players, with many overseas-based internationals seizing the opportunity to ply their trade from a home base in Buenos Aires. While that allowed the national coaches unfettered access to their players, it robbed them of some of the unique traits that enabled Los Pumas to perform with such old world pride and passion on the international stage.
One of the strengths of Argentinian rugby stemmed from reuniting a passionate and talented group of players, spread across professional leagues worldwide, to represent their country. They remain the only major nation not to select a player based on the residency rule.
The pride associated with pulling on that famous blue and white striped jersey transformed many ordinary players into international warriors, as Ireland found out at the 1999, 2007, and 2015 World Cups.
However, Argentina’s refusal to select any overseas based players — something new coach Mario Ledesma has reverted to for this tour having included a few in the Rugby Championship — meant the national side became an extension of the Jaguares, with the same players used for both.
Spending so much time together, travelling on a regular basis to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan for Super Rugby, as well as similar long haul treks to compete internationally in the Rugby Championship, that unique coming together disappeared. Familiarity only served to dilute their effectiveness on the international stage and eventually cost their long-term coach Daniel Hourcade his job.
Ledesma, a long-time thorn in Irish rugby at international level and with Clermont Auvergne — where he operated under the guidance of Schmidt — in Europe has had an immediate impact with a best-ever return of two wins and some really competitive performances in the Rugby Championship.
With just eight wins from the 36 tests played since the World Cup, Ledesma has recognised that change is required within the leadership group and in the dynamic of the squad with the appointment of bullocking back rower Pablo Matera as captain over the highly respected and long serving captain Agustin Creezy.
Ledesma has also set out to revive the power of the once-famed but now ailing Argentine scrum.
The former hooker, who acquired valuable international experience as part of Michael Cheika’s Wallabies management team that reached the 2015 World Cup final, always raised his game when facing Irish opposition.
Suffice to say, he didn’t like us. Expect more of the same on Saturday.