Summer Lovin’ Wayne Barnes Style - Ireland
I took a needed break from rugby the past month, nursing my Six Nations hangover and letting the final phase of European league play pass by. Titles have been settled and the champions enjoyed much-deserved celebrations. After a season of little surprise, save Clermont’s rapid decline in the Top 14, most everyone is ready to shift from the European-focus to a more international flavour.
Teams have been named for the touring nations and disruptive injuries have played their part. For the Home Nations (such a colonial term), each side has its own momentum (good and less so) and quite specific imperatives, regardless of whether they officially acknowledge them. [As much as I would like to do these pieces for Italy, France, and the southern hemisphere nations too, I just have not seen enough of their rugby this Spring. Hopefully that will change in the future.]
Ireland have earned bragging rights in the North, and will look to build on what they have learned to do really well, which is win through controlled aggression, a manner of discipline, and a clinical ability to rack up points. Their burgeoning strength in depth is a reminder of the virtues of shared stewardship by nation and professional clubs. World-class leaders and repeated revelations of new, young talent make Ireland a bullish side that can, for the first time ever, nurture serious World Cup ambition. For all of that Joe Schmidt has some boxes he would like to check off between now and Japan next year. His selections for the first Test indicate he wants to start getting answers right away.
- Try new combinations in the second row. James Ryan simply must play, and with Tadhg Beirne coming into the mix for Ireland, there is new depth and top-level competition. Iain Henderson showed last year he is a serious Test-level player.
- As great as he has been this Spring, Dan Leavy needs to play more Test rugby, and Schmidt will be thinking about back row balance as the emphasis on speed to the breakdown gains in importance. Ireland have great depth in the back row, but they will need it all the way through next year. Leavy has a chance through injury to Sean O'Brien and Josh van de Flier to make the position his to lose. While one suspects O'Brien's future is more at blindside, due to both age and the need for speed at openside, Schmidt's conservatism cannot be dismissed.
- Schmidt also needs to see how good his backup scrum halves can be. Whoever earns the role behind Murray is almost guaranteed to see time, both to protect him and in the event of injury.
- In the back line, Ireland will look to bolster their bench and their attacking threat in the back three. Carbery and Jordan Larmour deserve, and need, serious Test rugby opportunities. Equally, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway are still young and need to show sustained quality at Test level. One hopes Schmidt is curious enough to put Larmour, Stockdale, and Conway together in the back three for some significant period of time against the Wallabies.
Anybody remember when Ireland toured Australia in full expectation of a successful tour, and even an outright sweep? Australian Super Rugby teams have earned a few wins in recent weeks, but the overall malaise remains dire. The Wallabies have some world-class quality across the pitch, but unless they bring forward a stable of new talent, not much in the way of depth. While underestimating the Wallabies when they are down is never wise, Ireland appear to have developed consistency and resolve, and should rightly expect a minimum of two wins before they put their feet up for a deserved break.
What we hope to see
- Pocock and Folau - I hope Pocock wears rainbow scrum cap and gets many chances to accidentally rough up Folau at the bottom of a ruck
- Irish composure in the face of Oz shit-house baiting
- Kearns praising Ireland to bait the All Blacks while Grey engages in rampant Irish trolling
- Australia mixing in U20’s players as soon as they are done in France
- Campese so desperate for attention he challenges Jordan Larmour to a footrace and goose step competition
- Oz fans booing after a 25-point defeat, certain for one of these tests
- A referee telling Sexton to shut the fuck up and play
Unless Ireland stumble, the best the Wallabies could hope for is a single win. With the first Test selection, they get a chance right away. If Irish form holds and Schmidt's systems stand up, one could see a sweep and some chilly times for the Wallabies through the rest of the year.