Ireland touch down in Brisbane today with head coach Joe Schmidt striving to find a balance between the long-term objective of a history-making World Cup campaign and the more immediate desire to extend a record unbeaten run with a series win over Australia.
With the first of three Tests against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies looming in seven days at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, Schmidt will take his Grand Slam-winning 32-man squad, missing injured captain Rory Best, an hour up the road to a Gold Coast hideaway near Surfers Paradise to shake the long-haul flight out of the players’ leg and begin preparations for a Test series that could provide the ideal springboard into next season and the countdown to the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Ireland has 12 Tests over the next 12 months that will inform Schmidt and his coaching team as to which players he wants for the final run-in to an opening Pool A game against Six Nations rivals Scotland in Yokohama on September 22, 2019.
That is precisely one year, three months, and 20 days away and those 12 internationals provide only a limited opportunity to mould a squad with the depth and experience to face all eventualities during a high-intensity tournament, the lack of which brought Irish involvement to a crashing end at the hands of Argentina at the quarter-final stage in 2015.
Playing the Wallabies, World Cup finalists three years ago, on their home turf in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney on successive Saturdays is as good a place as any to start the process and Ireland will arrive Down Under in excellent shape as the number two-ranked team in the world.
They are unbeaten since March 10, 2017, and look to extend a winning run beyond the national team record-setting 12th victory secured on St Patrick’s Day as Best lifted the Six Nations trophy at Twickenham, his side having brushed aside England en route to a first Grand Slam since 2009.
Yet the loss of skipper and hooker Best and his 111 caps of experience to a hamstring problem on the eve of the tour highlights the precarious nature of the business Schmidt is in and he recognises that short-term gains such as individual Test wins sometimes do not tally with the bigger picture of building that big-game experience which has proved so elusive to Ireland at past World Cups.
If Ireland are to reach a first semi-final they will need quality in depth in every position.
With Munster’s Niall Scannell promoted to the squad as Best’s replacement to join fellow hookers Rob Herring of Ulster and Leinster’s Sean Cronin, Schmidt already sees the longer-term bonus, even if his squad has suffered a short-term negative.
Speaking of his hopes for this Australian tour, the Ireland boss said: “I think it’s a good opportunity for the three guys going as hookers now. For probably the last number of years, the understudy of Besty has fluctuated a little bit. It’s a good opportunity for all three of them to vie for the spot. That’s a positive.
“We want to make sure this tour is another building block for what comes in the future. The big tournament we play in on an annual basis is the Six Nations and we’re going to have a big target on our forehead for that next year and then obviously beyond that the really big tournament which follows in September/October is the World Cup.
“We don’t have too many options to trial things between now and then. This will be an opportunity to do some of that.
Ireland certainly seem to be getting to the point where they have that squad depth of a sufficiently high quality to take on the world’s best although it seems to be the coach’s lot never to be completely satisfied.
“You’re always hoping so,” said Schmidt. “There’s a small risk for us with just the three midfielders (Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, and Garry Ringrose) but Jordan (Larmour) actually, for a guy who hadn’t really trained there at all, he acquitted himself really well (for the final 15 minutes against England).
“And when I first saw him play, as a kid, he was playing 13 so we think we can cover with him and Earlsy (Keith Earls) moving in from the exterior and, at the same time, there are (non-touring) guys like Sam Arnold and Rory Scannell, and Stu McCloskey, who had a really strong end to the season, they add to that depth.
“If we could have taken more away, we probably would have taken another one of those three. But one of the limitations is you can only take so many, you can only provide opportunities to so many so therefore the opportunity pathway is through the provincial games and that’s why we take such a close interest in some of those great games that were played towards the end of the season.
“I think straight after the Six Nations we saw certainly two of the best provincial games that I’ve seen probably in quite some time. I thought the Saracens v Leinster game was immense and I was carried away like any fan in Thomond Park during those last few minutes of Toulon v Munster.
“That all helps build depth, that’s why we’re really dependent on the provinces staying strong and guys getting that pathway. Then, maximising the pathway that we have here.
“It’s the same in the loose forwards, you suddenly say that Rhys Ruddock just got back a little bit late (to be selected). The most he’s played in recent weeks was 55 minutes last weekend.
“You lose guys like Josh van der Flier, you have Sean O’Brien unavailable, and yet you’ve got a couple of guys who really came through in the Six Nations. The likes of Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy’s had a really strong end to the season. Tadhg Beirne is a guy that can play at lock and No6, yeah, you do start to think ‘wow’.
“It drives the players, because there’s competition for places and if someone decides to just ease up a little bit they know they can’t really afford to internally, we know playing the Australians that they can’t do it externally.”
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