‘THOSE ARE THE lucky boys who get to represent a group of players that’s been together for a while now and, more importantly, the country this weekend.’
Opportunity knocks for a host of players on Saturday, but because the visit of Italy to Dublin is one of three outings before Joe Schmidt must finalise his 31-man World Cup squad, it is likely to be the sole chance many get before big decisions are made.
A warm-up in name, but this weekend’s summer series opener against the Azzurri [KO 2pm, RTÉ 2/Channel 4] also serves as a high-stakes trial fixture, presenting those in the jersey with conceivably their only window to hold onto it. The door may still be open, but it’s closing fast.
Andy Farrell has taken the reins in camp this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
An extended pre-season block has allowed Schmidt and management to build up towards this game for a number of weeks, and the focus inside the camp has been on establishing cohesion amongst the 23 who will take to the field this week, many of whom will be playing in new combinations across the park.
Andy Farrell, in the unfamiliar position of announcing the starting XV in Schmidt’s continued absence, yesterday insisted the sole emphasis must be on the collective performance, but later admitted the players ‘would not be human’ if they were able to block everything else out of their thought-process this week.
The selection of Munster duo Jean Kleyn and Mike Haley — the former starting, the latter on the bench — represents the beginning of their respective international careers, but at the same time, there will be players entering last chance saloon as far as Japan is concerned.
With competition as intense as it is, now is the time to deliver the goods for many of those selected, otherwise the harsh reality of joining the already-cut Ultan Dillane and Rory Scannell out of the picture is very real. It’s now make or break time.
“I’m sure that’s in the back of people’s minds but it’s not come out in the group that way,” Farrell maintained. “It’s cohesion, that’s what they’re after.
“Today’s session was great, the players have started to take ownership. They’re leading it themselves, there’s a captain’s run tomorrow. They’ll do the same again there and on Saturday, they’ll be ready to go. It will be team first.
“I’m sure there will be a little bit there, they wouldn’t be human if they weren’t thinking a little bit about that [playing for places], but it has to be team first.
“As I said, the group is strong. The cohesion of the 43 is unbelievably strong. So strong that the guys who aren’t playing this weekend have really taken ownership of really helping the guys that are maybe playing for their spots. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but everyone is helping one another and that’s great to see.”
With many of the front-liners wrapped in cotton wool this week, it’s over to those on the periphery. Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell and Kleyn, you suspect, all need to show up in a big way as the battle for seats intensifies.
There are fascinating subplots throughout this experimental side. Jordan Larmour is given a shot at fullback having run rings around the Italians in Chicago last November, while the door has been left ajar for Conway and, somewhat unexpectedly, Dave Kearney, who will win his first cap since Fiji in 2017.
Andrew Porter starts against Italy. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
In midfield, Farrell, having won his five previous caps at 13, is deployed at inside centre alongside Garry Ringrose, and Joey Carbery and McGrath renew their Leinster half-back pairing.