The opportunities are dwindling to expose Ireland’s less experienced Test players and build strength in depth ahead of the next World Cup.
There just 22 months to go until Joe Schmidt sends out his team for the opening pool game against Scotland in Yokohama. Take a month off that for the deadline the Ireland head coach has to meet to name his 31-man squad and there are 18 Tests plus a couple of practice games available to him to pick the right men for the job.
Ten of those games will come in the 2018 and 2019 Six Nations championships while there is a three-Test, tier-one tour to Australia next June which also lends itself to picking the strongest line-ups.
Which leaves, realistically, just five matches in which to experiment with selections and even then it depends on the stature of the opposition.
For all the excitement generated by the presence of Leone Nakawara, Nemani Nadolo, and their fellow free spirits, tomorrow’s opponents Fiji represent an opportunity to roll the dice and Schmidt has done just that.
There are 13 changes from the side which thumped South Africa 38-3 last Saturday; Devin Toner at lock and Andrew Conway, who switches from right wing to full-back are the only survivors in a team captained by Rhys Ruddock.
Which means a Test debut for Munster centre Chris Farrell and a first start for wing Darren Sweetnam, who came off the bench last weekend for his first cap, as well as Leinster prop Andrew Porter and Ulster hooker Rob Herring.
The experienced spine has been rested ahead of the revenge match with Argentina in eight days which means Schmidt is relying on a half-back partnership of Kieran Marmion and Joey Carbery to steer Ireland to a second successive victory of this international window.
“It’s down to 18 games... so every one is incredibly precious because you don’t get that many opportunities,” Schmidt said.
“There’s always those learnings that you want to take out of it, but there’s no point in taking learnings out of somewhere and not having anywhere to apply them.
“So, then, will Joey start again against Argentina? We’d say that’s probably unlikely at this stage because Johnny (Sexton) is fully fit, so when will he apply those learnings? I can’t really say because then you’re into the Six Nations and we start with France away. Obviously, that’s a massive game for us away in the Stade de France. It’s always incredibly tough... we’ll have to go as fully loaded as we can. So that’s why this window for Joey is the ideal window and he’s really driven to make the most of it.”
Carbery’s first home start was the main focal point, a year after a memorable debut off the bench in Chicago when four days after his 21st birthday he steered Ireland home to a first victory over the All Blacks. A first start at 10 came in June when Ireland played the United States and while it was a win it was a tough day for Carbery, charged down twice for tries.
This season has further muddied the waters, Carbery deployed at full-back by Leinster as Sexton and Ross Byrne have worn 10 but Schmidt is confident from what he has seen of the New Zealand-born, Athy-raised fly-half in camp that he can step up to the plate in front of a sold-out Aviva Stadium crowd.
“A lot of it is even on the training ground because he has just played six minutes of competitive rugby at number 10,” Schmidt said, “I think we are asking a lot of him.
“The comforting thing is he takes a lot on himself and he wants to be as good as he can be. If you put yourself under pressure you find out a little bit more about yourself and you learn about yourself.
“We don’t necessarily have many windows for Joey to accelerate his learning so this is an opportunity for us to try and accelerate that as best we can. He has played almost 450 minutes of competitive rugby this year but that has all been at full-back. For him, the time of this match, it tightens the whole thing up and for him to move from 15 to 10 it tightens the whole thing up a lot further. It is going to be a tough day at the office for Joey and we want to see how he negotiates that really.
“You know the temptation was maybe put some more experience around him but then Kieran Marmion, he keeps evolving, certainly not physically but certainly in stature. He is lion-hearted, absolutely lion-hearted, he has a real spark to the way he plays and hopefully that will take a lot of pressure off Joey.”
Schmidt said he understood why Leinster weren’t picking Carbery at 10, but that underlined the importance of starting him, and others, in a green jersey tomorrow.
“If he doesn’t get those windows elsewhere we’ve got to try and get them for him here because we do need some support beneath Johnny, just as we do for all sorts of players.
“That’s one of the reasons Andrew Porter is getting an opportunity this weekend, that Ultan Dillane is starting a Test match. Ultan has come off the bench in a lot of Test matches, how are you going to make sure he’s ready to get started?
“There are a number of players across the board we’re looking at. Darren Sweetnam, I know it was very much a cameo of about six minutes last week, but he acquitted himself well and we want to see how he goes from the get-go. I’m pretty sure he’s excited, well I know he’s excited about seeing how he goes as well.”
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