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Comment: Why Conway is expected to start at full-back for Ireland with Larmour out on the wing

 

Stretching point: Keith Fox puts Keith Earls through his paces in training yesterday but injury may prevent him from playing
Stretching point: Keith Fox puts Keith Earls through his paces in training yesterday but injury may prevent him from playing
Rob Kearney

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Another day of cloak and dagger in the land of kimonos and samurai.

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Are Rob Kearney and Keith Earls fit to play against Scotland? The IRFU and Andy Farrell say they are on track to take their place. Informed sources suggest otherwise.

Will Addison remains in Belfast, no plans have been drawn up to station him in Saipan, and so Joe Schmidt presses on with a possibility that he'll have six fit outside backs for six jerseys for Sunday's opener against Scotland.

Today is a day off for the squad, they train overnight in Yokohama and Schmidt names the team tomorrow morning.

Despite the official soundings, all indications are that the back-three against the Scots will be Andrew Conway at full-back and Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale on the wings.

It's far from the trio Schmidt would have planned to field in a game he's been building towards for a couple of seasons, but such is the hand he's been dealt.

Gone would be the experience of Kearney's 95 Test caps with Ireland and the Lions and Earls' 78 appearances for his country, and in come the exciting pair of former golden boys Conway and Larmour.

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Given Larmour has had four starts at full-back in the last 13 internationals, it might have been expected that he'd don the No.15 jersey, but it appears that concerns over his positioning in the back-field see him remain on the wing.

So it is Conway, who more frequently wears the No.14 shirt for club and country, who is set to deputise for Kearney in Yokohama.

The last time he started at full-back for Ireland was in November 2017 against Fiji, and he wore 15 four times in 20 Munster outings last season.

When Addison came off in the warm-up win over Wales, Conway moved across and had a relentless 20 minutes of defending to do, so he is relatively untested and likely to come in for plenty of attention.

Scotland have a range of clever kickers and the boot is set to be one of the key battle grounds at this tournament. Tactical kicking and teams' responses to it will be key.

Kearney may be 33, but there's a reason Schmidt keeps calling on him.

In the past three seasons, he's named Robbie Henshaw, Addison, Simon Zebo, Tiernan O'Halloran, Conway and Larmour there, but it's always the Louthman who gets the nod when fit for the biggest games.

Now, Conway has a chance to step in and step up.

A schoolboy star from the same Blackrock production line as Brian O'Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald, there was a time you'd have backed Conway lighting up a World Cup for Ireland.

In the 2010 and 2011 Under-20 editions of the tournament he was a try machine, but his career has taken a different direction and he has reinvented himself in Munster.

The turn of pace is still there, but there is a selflessness and a work ethic that was possibly missing. There is a hunger to achieve and a focus that Schmidt responds to. He could take flight.

When Larmour burst onto the scene, hot-stepping his way to sensational tries for Leinster, Conway recognised something of himself in the St Andrew's College graduate.

Like the older man, he was the star of his Under-20 crop and Schmidt fast-tracked him into the senior set-up.

Andy Farrell said he was ready to step up a level at international standard, but we've yet to see him put top international sides to the sword.

Certainly, Larmour shows no fear and backs himself to succeed. If he or Conway get the ball with any time or space, they can be lethal.

"They're putting their best foot forward to contribute in all the areas of their expertise," assistant coach Farrell said of the duo yesterday. "They don't see themselves as part of the squad, they see themselves as team members that are building for something special."

From an attacking point of view, the potential is there with Stockdale for an exciting combination, but Schmidt will have concerns about fielding a back-three that has never played together before.

They are all good players and intelligent operators, but they'll give up plenty of caps to Scotland's expected trio of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will test those three, but so too Ali Price or Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell will aim to pressurise the Irish.

Of course, Kearney and Earls could be fit and the smoke and mirrors might have discombobulated Gregor Townsend.

We'll know for sure tomorrow, but when the whistle goes on Sunday, the smoke and mirrors will count for little.

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