Irish boss wants to see Ulsterman step it up
Four years ago, when the British and Irish Lions were in New Zealand, then Ireland coach Joe Schmidt gave five debuts in the summer’s first Test match against the USA and three more a week later in Japan.
Among that number were Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Andrew Porter, a trio who from then were firmly ensconced in the Kiwi’s first-choice match day 23, key additions to a panel that was on the cusp of one of the greatest years in Irish Rugby history.
Such recent and prominent examples of the benefits of blooding youngsters in these Lions years summer fixtures likely left many believing that those Irish fans in the Aviva Stadium this afternoon for the first time since February 2020 would be seeing plenty of debutants pulling on a green jersey.
Looking back, though, and that accomplished trio of junior World Cup finalists that made such a sure start in the world of international rugby are something of an outlier.
While Shane Byrne and Mick O’Driscoll went on to have long Test careers after debuting while Keith Wood and Malcolm O’Kelly were with the Lions in Australia in 2001, Mike Ross and Robbie Henshaw are the only others this century to have made their Ireland bows in such circumstances and gone on to hit the 20-cap mark.
Of course, while we may see more of the young up and comers next week against the USA, if Andy Farrell had been tempted to flood his team with inexperience today, the sight of the opposition surely would have given him pause for thought.
Defence coach rather than head coach at the last World Cup, Farrell was sat next to Schmidt in Shizuoka as the Brave Blossoms knocked the wheels from an Irish bandwagon that was then ranked No.2 in the world.
While we know now that Ireland in that form would not have beaten the Springboks in the last-eight either, that loss to Japan which put them on the course to meet the All Blacks in the quarter-finals felt then like their whole tournament had been derailed.
“Yeah, we need to be respectful to ourselves,” said the head coach when asked if his selection policy had been to simply field the strongest side he had available to him.
“This is a proper Test match first and foremost. We’re playing against a top-class side in Japan, we all know that from the last time we played them.
“The two games that they’ve had, the hit-out they had against the Sunwolves and against the Lions, they’re a formidable side that’s very experienced and we obviously need to respect them but we need to respect ourselves first and foremost.
“So we watch training, we watch who comes in and adds to the environment and who puts their hand up to be selected for Ireland.”
Nor is this a side without intrigue, perhaps most notably in the midfield.
Through a variety of misfortunes, Ireland have rarely had all three of Garry Ringrose, Henshaw and Bundee Aki available at the same time but the presence of the trio have limited the chances for those behind them, primarily Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey.
The pair of erstwhile Dungannon centres have been patiently waiting for a chance for some time now, McCloskey especially getting few opportunities despite being one of Ulster’s stand-out and most consistent performers both domestically and in Europe.
Since making his debut all the way back in 2016, he has won just four caps despite regularly featuring in squads with each of his appearances separated by at least a year.
As Farrell himself noted, this is the chance players like him have been desperate for.
“I’m excited across the board to see how the team performs because there are so many different ramifications that are happening throughout the side,” he added.
“First and foremost it’s been a delight to be involved in the group.
"It’s such a diverse group and such a different group from what we’ve been used to in the past and the opportunities are fantastic for us.
“You’ve got new guys coming in and you’re seeing them trying to find their feet and find their way within the group.
“We’ve got guys who are on four or five caps trying to come in and they look like the experienced guys, and some of those guys now are becoming leaders and that will stand to us as well.
“We’ve got other guys who are coming that have probably felt hard done by in the past. They’ve probably gone home in Six Nations weeks etcetera and have been desperate for a chance, and this is the chance.
“You talk about Chris and Stuart and they’ve been there knocking on the door for an opportunity in a big match and this is a big Test match so I’m delighted for them.
“Hopefully they can perform with the team at the weekend.”