‘We don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by not being open-minded’

‘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.

That contest to earn the role as Conor Murray’s deputy at nine is arguably the fiercest in Carton House, with Kieran Marmion — on the bench this weekend — and John Cooney having built strong arguments for their inclusion in recent times. 

Up front, McGrath, Rob Herring and Andrew Porter are given their opportunity to impress, and will know they need to seize that chance given the calibre of player waiting in the wings for their audition.  

Cian Healy, who is in the 23 for Italy, is nailed-on at loosehead, Tadhg Furlong is the main man at tighthead, but beyond that there are places up for grabs with McGrath, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Porter and Finlay Bealham all competing for potentially three other spots.

Porter, given his flexibility in being able to switch to the loosehead if required, is in pole position and he gets a starting opportunity in the first warm-up game, with Ulster prop McGrath handed an olive branch by Schmidt having fallen down the pecking order in recent times. 

“Obviously in the back of their minds they want to put their best foot forward, everyone wants to do that,” Farrell continued. “Everyone wants to get on that plane. How they manage their own expectations of being at their best but also apply that to how we want to play in our team strategy is what we want to see.

“They’ll be feeling the pressure. They’ve got to be able to deal with that, play the game for what it is but play the game the Ireland way.”

Ireland’s defence coach insists the management must remain open-minded going into this block of four games.

“Obviously we’ve got certain guys that we know and hope are going to board the plane to Japan but it would be very dismissive of ourselves if we are locked in,” Farrell adds.

“Why? Because the group deserve for us to be open-minded going into these games as well. Some guys worked unbelievably hard to force themselves into the squad of 45 for training back in June and they’ve all applied themselves unbelievably well.

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“It’s going to be really difficult to narrow it down, but it’s our jobs to do that and we’ll have to do what’s best for the team. We’ve got to make sure we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by not staying open-minded enough.”

The42 Rugby Weekly is back as we get ready for next month’s World Cup. Murray, Gavan and Bernard Jackman get us started by looking ahead to this weekend’s opening warm-up game against Italy.

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