Joe Schmidt has thrown the gauntlet down to Ireland’s World Cup 2019 hopefuls to cope with Japan’s unique rugby conditions and also challenged a string of second-row forwards to fill the remaining vacancy on next month’s tour.
Schmidt yesterday named a 31-player squad for the three-Test summer tour of the US and World Cup hosts Japan, including eight uncapped players in the Ireland party.
There were no places for seasoned internationals Jamie Heaslip, Sean Cronin, and Rob Kearney, deemed not to have returned to peak fitness following injuries.
There was a surprise call-up for last season’s Ireland U20 captain James Ryan, who is yet to make a senior appearance for Leinster after a campaign sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Yet there is one seat on the plane bound for New Jersey ahead of the one-off Test with the USA at Red Bull Arena on June 10 and having named just three locks in Devin Toner and uncapped duo Ryan and Ulster’s Kieran Treadwell, Schmidt will assess the merits of potential tourists in action for their provinces this weekend.
Munster’s Billy Holland, capped for the first time in November, is expected to go up against Ospreys, Wales, and Lions star Alun Wyn Jones at Thomond Park on Saturday, with Leinster’s Ross Moloney another possible on display the previous night for Leinster against Scarlets in the Guinness PRO12 semi-finals.
There will also be interest for the Irish selectors at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday when Connacht face Northampton Saints in a Champions Cup qualification semi-final with Quinn Roux, Andrew Browne and perhaps even Ultan Dillane set to feature for Pat Lam’s side.
Dillane could make his comeback from shoulder surgery this weekend having returned to training.
For those less experienced squad members already on the plane, though, there is the incentive to show head coach Schmidt of their readiness for the international rugby in the absence of 11 frontliners on duty this summer with the British & Irish Lions.
As well as James Ryan and Treadwell, the uncapped players number Connacht’s John Cooney, Dave Heffernan, Leinster’s Rory O’Loughlin and Andrew Porter, Munster centre Rory Scannell and Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale, while Ronan O’Gara, Girvan Dempsey and Felix Jones will join the party as assistant coaches for a week apiece.
With Tests against Japan in Shizuoka on June 17 and Tokyo a week later, Schmidt said: “The summer tour squad includes plenty of youth. There is a real freshness to the group, including the coaching staff, so we’re looking forward to what will be a very challenging summer tour.
“We have retained a sprinkling of experienced players, some of whom may yet be called up to the Lions, but the focus is really on challenging the younger players to cope with the heat and foreign conditions as well as the speed and physicality of Test rugby.”
James Ryan proved his fitness in a Munster jersey last Saturday as he was granted gametime for the province’s Development team against the Ireland U20s at Thomond Park and from what little he has seen of the lock, his Leinster coach and former England boss Stuart Lancaster believes he has similar attributes to a young Maro Itoje.
“I actually coached Maro at U17s when I was in that previous role,” Lancaster said.
“You can sometimes see these players come through who tick all three boxes really. Athletically, they are clearly going to be in the ballpark to be an international player.
“Secondly, they’ve got the technical ability and, thirdly, they have the mentality. That’s what Maro had as a young bloke coming through. Just from the outside, and listening to what people say about James, it seems he has all three components as well.
“We took (Itoje) into the World Cup squad to give him that experience, knowing he would transition through into the senior team. I think James is in the same category from what I understand. From what I’ve seen, he looks like he’s got all three parts of the jigsaw.
“The injury has given him the chance to put some weight on and physically develop because he’s a big man anyway. He’s even bigger now. He certainly seems to have the technical ability and he definitely has the drive as well.
"He is very driven, very humble, wants to learn, wants to get better. The over-riding impression was the inner drive. You could see it. He didn’t have to say too much to realise he’s going to be a competitor.”
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