There has been no cosy chat to compare likely team selections this time, but the respective sides named by Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter for tomorrow’s World Cup warm-up between Ireland and Scotland in Dublin nonetheless made clear the fact the experimentation phase is far from over.
“Not at all about the teamsheets,” said Schmidt when asked if he had chewed the fat about their respective needs with Cotter, his pal and old Clermont Auvergne boss, just as he had with Warren Gatland a week earlier before the seasonal loosener with Wales. The resultis broadly similar.
This time it is another experimental opponent that will provide the litmus test for a slew of World Cup hopefuls and Ireland are, in reality, not much further along the curve in a collective sense given Schmidt has opted for 14 changes from the XV that fronted up against the Welsh.
Sean O’Brien captains this time, but Mike Ross is the only connecting string between the starting XVs with ongoing concerns over Marty Moore’s recuperation from shoulder surgery and a niggle that is afflicting Tadhg Furlong resulting in the 35-year being asked to go to the well yet again. It looks like Moore and Furlong will be asked to run out for Leinster in their own pre-season friendly against Ulster next week in order to push them on towards a possible appearance in the penultimate prep session against Wales, but the reliance on Ross is hauntingly familiar for now.
Ongoing concerns over Cian Healy’s well-being on the far side of the front row see Munster’s David Kilcoyne step in to the No.1 shirt with Michael Bent providing cover for both sides and Nathan White poised to finally earn his first cap off the bench.
”He had a very good season this year,” said Schmidt of Kilcoyne. “He tied down the No.1 spot in Munster, but we have also got a few other resources there. Jack McGrath started four of the five Six Nations matches plus he played against South Africa and the Wallabies in the November series.
“He has got some good experience and then on the back of that James Cronin played for us against Italy, albeit briefly off the bench. Denis Buckley has been in camp and done quite well and Michael Bent came off the bench last week and did well.”
No shortage of options then, but Schmidt admitted again that Healy’s loss, if it comes to that for the World Cup, would be enormous. Yet the elevation of Jack Conan for a first cap in the wake of Tommy O’Donnell’s cruel hip injury spoke for the opportunities that injuries invariably create.
The news on Andrew Trimble is, thankfully, not as bad as feared with bruising to his foot and toe resulting in the Ulster man being stood down for 10 days and with Wales’ visit to Dublin on Saturday week now pencilled in as a targeted return date.
The back three is perhaps the most competitive area in the squad anyway. Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald will patrol the tramlines while Simon Zebo will be thrilled with the chance to again prove why he prefers full-back to the wing.
Gordon D’Arcy gets his shot to secure a tournament berth as he starts alongside Jared Payne in midfield while Ian Madigan has been afforded the chance to silence those doubters who believe he lacks the game management skills to be a starting ten.
“We want him to control,” Schmidt explained. “Ian had played a lot (for Leinster) at number 10 in 2013/14 and two years ago there had been some speculation Johnny (Sexton) might not get back in because Ian had gone so well and Johnny had missed six games.”
That still leaves nine of the extended squad still to tog out with two warm-ups still to go, though Schmidt confirmed the likes of Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Rob Kearney, Peter O’Mahony and Robbie Henshaw will likely see some action in Saturday week’s return with Wales.
“A little bit similar to last week,” said the Ireland coach when asked for his wish list for tomorrow. “We’re looking for a solid set-piece. If we can get that it allows us the platform to put a few things into place and then we get to examine combinations. There is nothing worse than having a muddled game and then trying to judge combinations when there wasn’t a lot of fluency available to them.”
There was no further word of any more players being released from the panel, either temporarily or permanently, but no-one is in any doubt this weekend will mark the point at which some World Cup dreams are secured and others are soured.
Hugh Blake’s was the name on most people’slipsyesterday when Vern Cotter announced his Scotland side.
Born and raised in New Zealand, Blake was added to Scotland’s Six Nations squad earlier this year shortly after his arrival and despite the fact he had yet to play for his club Edinburgh at the time. Unused then, he makes his debut in Dublin.
Henry Pyrgos captains the side from scrum-half for the first time with Greig Tonks moving from full-back to out-half while Ruaridh Jackson has made the switch in the opposite direction of late.
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