It’s that time of year again, when the rugby world descends on Europe and throws together an annual blend of excitement and intrigue as the Southern Hemisphere goes toe to toe with its Northern cousins.
For Ireland, this November’s Guinness Series will see visits to Dublin from South Africa, Fiji and Argentina and while there will be no All Blacks or Wallabies on the menu this time around that has not dampened the anticipation with the Aviva Stadium sold-out for the Springboks and Pumas games and close to capacity for the middle date against the powerful, free-wheeling Fijians.
It promises the spectator an attractive series of encounters but here the Irish Examiner looks at what Ireland boss Joe Schmidt will be looking to gain from the experience.
Ireland will be looking to build on the success of this summer’s Tests in the United States and Japan when a young, developmental side captained by Rhys Ruddock scored victories in New Jersey, Shizuoka and Tokyo.
There were new plenty of debut caps on the tour, for the likes of Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Kieran Treadwell, all of whom have retained their places for this month’s Guinness Series in a squad featuring 16 players with four caps or less.
“I think performance-wise, getting some of those players that we really want to give an opportunity, giving them those opportunities,” was head coach Joe Schmidt’s view of what he wants to see from this month’s three Tests.
“So you’ll see a few changes through the three Tests. Areally positive Guinness Series is to continue from Japan a little bit. We don’t have too many windows. The next window is a massive pressure cooker for us - it’s the Six Nations, it’s the big competition of the year.
“If we want to get a window where we can still look to be as competitive as we can be but also grow the group a bit, this is our window. And that’s part of our strategy behind some of those guys in the back three. It’s part of the strategy in the second row and in the front row. There are some exciting new guys involved and we’re excited about seeing how they go. If they go well I think that’s a successful Guinness Series for us because it’s an investment for us, that we want an immediate return on but that we’re prepared to also take a longer-term view with.”
Much will depend on how in the past week Schmidt’s enlarged group of players picked up from the summer, reintegrated after the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand and got acquainted with their new squad-mates.
There were three distinct elements of the head coach’s 38-man squad which checked into Carton House eight nights ago: the core which toured with the head coach to the US and Japan, the 10 frontline stars who spent the summer on duty with the Lions (Jared Payne, the 11th, has not played since the NZ tour, he remains at Ulster) and the uncapped new boys: newly-qualified Bundee Aki, recent returnee to Irish shores Chris Farrell and back three rising stars Adam Byrne and Darren Sweetnam.
That’s a lot of bedding in that was needed to be done last week so the squad can hit the ground running as a united force when they return to training this morning ahead of Saturday’s date with the Springboks, as Lions starting scrum-half Conor Murray explained: “There are a lot of new faces, which is exciting to see,” Murray said.
“We went out for a meal (on the first Sunday night of camp), just getting to know lads you might not know that well, you know, like Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter, all these new faces that I wouldn’t have seen on the summer tour. There’s a lot of work to be done because this big group hasn’t been together, with the Lions and the summer tour to Japan we haven’t been together in so long, so it’s all hands to the wheel and we’ve got to work hard over this week and in the lead-up to South Africa and have a good crack off it.”
There has been no shyness in the Ireland camp about the opportunity to right some wrongs this month.
The 2016 summer tour to South Africa which began so well with a first Test win over the Springboks on their home soil was followed by a narrow series defeat and the opportunity to avenge the narrow final-Test loss in Port Elizabeth is the first priority of this Series when Allister Coetzee’s side arrive in Dublin this Saturday.
Then there is the visit of Argentina to Aviva Stadium on November 25.
The resounding 43-20 defeat in that 2015 World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff still rankles for the head coach and the players who were swept aside by the Pumas that night.
Schmidt has referenced it time and time again since that October evening under the Millennium Stadium roof and it has informed his selections since, so determined is he for his team not to be left as exposed as it was then in the absence of the stricken Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Jared Payne and Johnny Sexton as well as the suspended Sean O’Brien, the Irish cause further hampered by the loss of Tommy Bowe after just 13 minutes.
Which is why the head coach has pledged to make the most of the few Test windows remaining before the 2019 World Cup in Japan and will mix and match his selections over the next three games as he builds the depth in his squad, but not by sacrificing the opportunity to put one over on old foes Argentina.
When it comes to facing tier-one opposition, last season’s Six Nations represented something of a falling off in terms of consistency that will need addressing heading into next spring’s renewal of the championship.
After wins last autumn over the All Blacks in Chicago and Australia on home soil at the Aviva, the 2017 campaign got off to a terrible start as a Stuart Hogg-inspired Scotland ran roughshod through Ireland’s defences at Murrayfield and though there was a rebound against Italy and France, another defeat followed against Wales on a Friday night in Cardiff.
And yet there the rollercoaster finished on an upward curve with that storming win over England.
Will the real Ireland stand up this month?