Is he playing quarterback?
A little over three years ago, it’s likely Joe Schmidt sat in his local bar having a quiet drink as he contemplated events of the previous few weeks at the 2015 RWC.
His team, that he thought were prepared to within a millimetre of precision, had been out-fought and out-thought in the quarterfinal by Argentina who came better prepared, and critically with better depth, to outplay the Irish with a 43-20 comfortable win as Ireland were found wanting.
Once again, the Pumas had knocked out Ireland in an RWC. Schmidt made a silent commitment to never be caught like that again.
His team went into the quarterfinal missing key players through injury and suspension. Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jonathan Sexton, Jared Payne – were all in his first-team picks, and their replacements had come up well shy.
All teams get injuries, but the Irish squad quality depth fell away after the match-day 23 in having matching replacement talent when those injuries inevitably occurred. Next time, maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference but Schmidt doesn’t want to die wondering.
Ireland meet Argentina again this weekend for their ninth test at Lansdowne Road. They’ve always been snarly, combustible, in your face affairs – with a lot of bad blood between the teams.
This, particularly during the noughties, when they were led by former Leinster fly-half, Felipe Contemponi, who was always singled out for treatment when Munster were in their pomp.
Despite the aggression, and their 3-1 RWC winning record, Argentina have never won in Dublin. Mario Ledesma is determined to change that this weekend. It should be a feisty affair and not one for any player who might be thinking about future battles.
For Schmidt, the game presents a dual challenge – to maintain Ireland’s 100 per cent home record against the Pumas – and equally important – to continue giving more game time to the players he’s been developing assiduously since the 2016 Six Nations.
The four November tests present three opportunities to do that. The first was last weekend, against Italy in Chicago, this week in the Pumas game, and in their final test against the USA on 24 Nov.
Since 2015, Schmidt has given new caps to 35 players, the second highest after South Africa. Last weekend were the most recent – Ross Byrne, the third option at ten, and Will Addison, a utility-back who can cover 13, wing and full-back.
Both players are slotted into the Schmidt system and acquitted themselves well, according to their coach.
Most of last weekend’s 23 squad were essentially Schmidt’s B team back-ups. They won handily scoring eight tries against a largely Italian B team.
His props, Jack McGrath – his regular bench option and Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne, who has been improving steadily. Andrew Porter, a 22-year old tighthead at Leinster who already has a 6N grand slam and European Cup under his belt.
Finlay Bealham also featured in the Chicago win in 2016 and is able to cover both sides of the scrum. Munster’s John Ryan, another TH backup for Tadgh Furlong, will be on the pitch this week.
In Chicago last week, Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin were fighting to get one of the two spots behind captain Rory Best at hooker. Best’s club hooking teammate, Rob Herring, will also likely get another chance to shine on Saturday.
Devin Toner continues to be a reliable Schmidt favourite coming from the bench. As Ireland’s lock stocks have bloomed with Munster’s Tadgh Beirne and Quinn Roux starting against the Italians.
This makes it likely that James Ryan and Iain Henderson will get in first-up against the Pumas. One of the five will lose out for Japan but knows they will be on standby.
In the back row, the absence of Sean O’Brien all year has hardly been noticed with the emergence of opensider, Dan Leavy, alongside Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan. They will compete with O’Mahony and CJ Stander.
It’s quite possible that by the time of the RWC, the starting trio of SOB, POM and Stander may no longer be a given with two players competing for each of their positions.
The injury to Conor Murray, who wasn’t named in the November squad of 42 players, gives a chance to three scrum-halves to burnish their credentials further. Against Italy, it was Luke McGrath and John Cooney, with 21-capped, Kieran Marmion likely to start this week.
Joey Carbery got another start at leading the line against the Italians, but has his former Leinster team-mate, Ross Byrne, breathing down his neck for the 22 shirt. Sexton may start against Argentina, but it’s who Schmidt selects for the bench that will be interesting.
In midfield, Schmidt has two unfortunate injuries for possible outside centres – Chris Farrell who performed well during the 2018 Six Nations and uncapped, Sammy Arnold, who has been excellent form with Munster this season.
Both would be alternates to Garry Ringrose who started against Italy and is fast becoming the defensive lynchpin for the backline.
Stuart McCloskey is sitting behind Henshaw and Aki for the 12 shirt and should get a game, but may have to wait for the USA match before that happens. Newcomer, Will Addison, might be tried at 13 or 15 again this weekend.
In the back three, a training injury to Rob Kearney put Jordan Larmour in the hot seat from the off, and he responded with a dancing, weaving hat-trick against an admittedly weak Italian defence.
He still has a lot to learn, and the quicksilver Pumas back-three will be looking to test him hard if he gets a start again this week. Jacob Stockdale, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, and relative newbie, Darren Sweetnam are also in the mix, although Sweetnam is more likely to feature against the USA in the final test.
Whilst the New Zealand match is obviously important, it is the other November tests that are Schmidt’s final best chance to see what other talents he can mine as he continues digging for depth to complete his 31-man RWC squad in the hope of ultimately finding gold in Japan.
Rory Best – 111; Rob Herring – 6; Sean Cronin – 63; Niall Scannell – 10
Tadhg Furlong – 26; Andrew Porter – 9; John Ryan – 15; Finlay Bealham – 8; Cian Healy – 81; Dave Kilcoyne – 23; Jack McGrath – 51
Tadhg Beirne – 3; Iain Henderson – 39; Quinn Roux – 7; James Ryan – 11; Devin Toner – 61
Dan Leavy – 10; Josh van der Flier – 11; Jordi Murphy – 23; Sean O’Brien – 51; Peter O’Mahony – 50; Rhys Ruddock – 20; Jack Conan – 10; CJ Stander – 26
John Cooney – 2; Kieran Marmion – 22; Luke McGrath – 6
Ross Byrne 1; Joey Carbery 13; Jonathan Sexton 76
Garry Ringrose – 15; Robbie Henshaw – 36; Will Addison – 1; Bundee Aki – 10; Sam Arnold – 0; Stuart McCloskey – 2
Andrew Conway – 8; Keith Earls – 70; Rob Kearney – 86; Jordan Larmour – 7; Jacob Stockdale – 12; Darren Sweetnam – 2