Last week’s largely unnecessary return to Soldier Field may have proved an on-field success for Ireland but when viewed on the whole the journey appears to have been largely pointless. Were the IRFU trying to give an opportunity to the diaspora to see Ireland play our least competitive Six Nations opponent or did they sense what now appears to be a relatively unsuccessful attempt to make money? Couldn’t this game have taken place before a full house at Thomond Park against one of the Pacific Island nations, who are crying out for opportunities to play meaningful games against top tier opposition? And what about the carbon footprint?
Of course, you hear the usual nonsense about growing the game – the lip service regarding the Pacific Nations comes to mind – but it’s very unlikely that kids on the South Side of Chicago ripped off their Bulls and Bears jerseys to see what all the fuss was about in the barely half full Soldier Field last Saturday afternoon.
There were positives some to the trip to be fair. Jordi Murphy got to enjoy a night at the United Centre, we witnessed more of the carefree, attacking brilliance of Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne continued on his ascent to becoming one of the best second rows in European rugby. But was the trip really necessary? Is a 4000 mile round trip entering one of the busiest phases of the season really conducive to the welfare of the players? Only time will reveal, of course, but in the short term it appears that Larmour and Beirne were the big winners against a weakened Italian selection who, unfortunately, do not appear to be closing the gap on their European rivals.
Ireland’s relentless ascendancy up the World Rankings – not like 2007’s flash in the pan – means that all eyes have moved to the contest with the double world champions, New Zealand, on Saturday week. However, it would be remiss to ignore the upcoming challenge of an Argentinian side that put in its best ever performance in this year’s Rugby Championship, culminating in victories over South Africa in Mendoza and Australia on the road.
Unlike Ireland, the Argentinians have scuffled around the World Rankings in between World Cups, rarely bedeviled by the notion of facing one of the traditional big three (or Ireland) at the World Cup. We have an unusual obsession with the World Rankings which, admittedly, stems from a time when our place in the top eight was far from assured. While we have seen ‘ the Golden Generation’ and the deepest squad in Irish rugby history falter at various stages, Los Pumas with their fusion of confrontational forward play and expressive movement in the backs have now competed in two of the last three Rugby World Cup semi-finals.
The natural and slightly irritating consequence – we’re as guilty as anyone – of Ireland’s recent success is that contests against Argentina are viewed as games Ireland will win comfortably because, well, the only side better than Joe Schmidt’s team are New Zealand. Argentina caused real problems for New Zealand on both of the occasions they met this year, moving the Kiwis around relentlessly, changing the point of attack and finding holes in the New Zealand defence quite regularly. It is of course testament to the World Champions that victory was achieved relatively comfortably in the end but this isn’t the week to sing their praises.
Argentina made a potentially questionable call in choosing to omit those players who ply their trade in Europe from selection for the national team. Given the size of their playing base this is quite an extraordinary move and there is no point or sense in drawing similarities with the policies mirrored in Ireland and New Zealand. When Argentina qualified for the semi-final in 2007 only seven of their squad played their club rugby at home. By 2015, just eight of their squad plied their trade in the European leagues.
Admittedly, the selection policy over overseas based players is set in mud as the most recent Rugby Championship saw players slowly return to the fold but if the aim is to produce an international squad drawn largely from home based players, then the policy has stuttered its way to effectiveness. Argentina had admittedly been pretty awful prior to this summer but it appears that once their confidence lifts lift their game returns almost immediately. They either have unflinching confidence, the ability to only look forward or a combination of both but with the World Cup less than 12 months out, Argentina are once more a dangerous opponent.
While Conor Murray’s status remains up in the air, Saturday evening provides a huge opportunity for Kieran Marmion to stake his claim to potentially start against New Zealand and then lock down a place in the 23 for this year’s Six Nations. Joe Schmidt, like all coaches, has his preferred players who generally earn his respect after doing a job when called upon in trying circumstances. When people think back to Ireland’s victory over England in 2017 that thankfully prevented Eddie Jones side from matching New Zealand’s winning streak, they may forget that it was Marmion who came in at relatively short notice and performed outstandingly well. Similarly, in 2016 and with the Irish backline ravaged by injury, Marmion unexpectedly played 40 minutes on the wing and somehow managed to prevent the winning score going in down his flank. The point is Marmion has been there and done it for Schmidt and given there is a width of paper between Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney – the latter has the highest ceiling in our view – it’s no surprise that he’s starting on Saturday night.
Another making his return to the starting line-up is the rarely seen, Sean O’ Brien. We all know at this stage that O’ Brien is a force of nature when fully fit but that sight has become more and more of a rarity these days. If the Tullow man can somehow run through an injury free 12 months which will have to be aided by luck and judicious selection by the Leinster coaching staff, Ireland will arguably possess the best back row of any team appearing at the World Cup. O’ Brien’s performance, effectively off the couch, in 2016 against New Zealand confirmed everything we already knew but two years have elapsed since then and he now has formidable, proven opposition for his place in the shape of Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. Van der Flier excelled, admittedly against largely disinterested opposition last week and Leavy himself is just back from injury but a big seven days for O’ Brien could see him entrenched once more as Ireland’s first choice number seven. If his body can withstand the rigours of the Latin and Antipodean grindhouses, then it bodes well for his chances in 2019.
Rob Kearney’s absence gives Jordan Larmour the opportunity to state his case in a game that will provide far greater insight into the 22 year old’s fundamentals at the back. While Andrew Conway may feel slightly disappointed, Larmour’s audaciousness last week – he’s in heat check territory at the moment- means he thoroughly deserves his chance tomorrow.
There’s a nice balance to the Irish back line – Marmion has intimate knowledge of his centres’ game – and Argentina spent the southern winter throwing the ball around so for once, Cardiff in 2015 excepted, the contest between these two teams may flow. Argentinian winger, Bautista Delguy, has garnered plaudits for his performances throughout this year’s Super 15 tournament and it would be wonderful if two enthralling young talents were the talk of the game afterwards.
The annual peddling of the line that the European sides are at the start of their seasons and therefore ‘cold’ rings less and less valid these days, at least for Ireland. This side resembles the 15 that Schmidt has picked for the last 18 months and by all accounts players entrenched in Joe Schmidt’s camps are extraordinarily well prepared. At this stage, barring injuries, there are probably five positions up for grab on the starting fifteen so the de facto World Cup trials start tomorrow evening.
For Larmour, in particular, the challenges will come thick and fast from hereon. His footwork and pace made everyone sit up and take notice but Joe Schmidt will be honed in on the fundamentals of the 21 year old’s game, particularly when Rob Kearney has been a near permanent fixture in Schmidt sides. Larmour, like his team mates, is not short on composure though and the home side should ease to victory here.
S.U.S. Prediction – Ireland by 12
- Jonathan Sexton anytime try scorer @ 7/2
- Andrew Conway last try scorer @ 8/1