This isn’t the team that Joe Schmidt envisaged naming against Samoa.
The Ireland head coach would not have opted for a XV so close to full strength against such a physically imposing opponent and just one week out from a planned quarter-final under normal circumstances. The loss to Japan and a host of injury issues have forced the head coach to roll with the punches and counter accordingly.
There is no Sean O’Brien or Dan Leavy in Japan, Jack Conan came and went having played just over an hour of the opening game against Scotland in Yokohama, and his replacement, Jordi Murphy, lasted barely a quarter against Russia before damaging ribs. He plays no part against the Samoans either.
And yet, Ireland are not all that far from what was morphing into their first-choice back row this weekend. Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander have started three of the team’s seven games so far this season and not just any three either: England at Twickenham, Scotland in the tournament opener, and Japan in Shizuoka.
Only O’Mahony is absent from the off this time. He starts on the bench having been ‘managed’ this week.
“It’s obviously been a big disappointment losing Jack,” said van der Flier. “That was tough but there’s been a good balance to the back row.
A lot of the lads cover different positions and we have all played together a few times, which is good. The breakdown has been good. We haven’t had too many turnovers against us, which is what you would be typically looking at in the back row.
Throwing Tadhg Beirne into the mix here is interesting. This will be the first time this trio lines out together and there is no way of knowing how a new unit clicks, or doesn’t, until it has been put through its paces. What Beirne, who has played mostly at lock for Ireland, brings is a poacher’s eye and a penchant for carrying ball. Both are useful talents in such trying circumstances.
“We’re trying to share the load,” said Schmidt after revealing his hand yesterday. “We’ve tried to rotate the back row a little bit after the six- and five-day turnarounds. Some guys had to double up and they’ve had more involvements than what we had anticipated.
“Plus, losing Jack Conan, who we named to play against Japan, meant we had to use up more of the mileage available in the back-row. So, it’s probably not ideal but there’s players who have been freshened up a bit.
“Josh van der Flier, he didn’t play against Russia, so he’s coming in fresh. He’s going to have his hands full with a back-row containing TJ Ioane and Jack Lam and Chris Vui who I think is massively underrated. He’s captained Samoa a number of times, he’s very good aerially, and, from a back-row perspective, it’s going to be physical. It’s going to be fast, it’s going to be combative. I like to think we’ve guys ready for that battle.”
It may be that Rhys Ruddock would have been chosen at six instead of Beirne here had the Leinster flanker not been another to be ‘managed’ this week. He doesn’t even make the bench having impressed so much in the win over the Russians under the roof in Kobe’s Misaki Stadium.
Beirne has declared himself to be unperturbed about where Schmidt selects him but he will understand that this is a big opportunity for him having last started at six alongside O’Mahony and Conan in the final warm-up game, against Wales, early last month.
“He’s a great player,” said van der Flier. “He’s probably been the best at the breakdown in Europe the last two years and he has been incredibly impressive. He has been outstanding for Munster all year as well so it is exciting to be playing alongside him.”