Twice a year we interrupt the domestic season in mid-flow to run the Internationals, the bread winning games that fund world rugby. The November series is upon us.
We play four games this year, the first on American soil against Italian opposition. A strangely conceived game, given we play the Italians every year in the Six Nations anyway. Will playing them add to our preparation for next Autumn’s World Cup matches? Not directly.
Our opponents at the pool stages are Japan, Scotland, Russia, and Samoa. None of these could be said to resemble the Italians. In fact, Japan and Scotland are more worrying opposition and the Samoans generally raise their game for a World Cup. What do we get out of playing an Italian side that has barely challenged us for a decade, and playing them in Chicago?
In addition to the Italian game, we play Argentina, New Zealand, and USA, all in the Aviva Stadium. When you add to this a few bruising inter-provisionals, a further two difficult games in the European Champions cup, all in October, with barely a break in between, you get as close as you can to simulating the pressure of a World Cup as is possible.
Not that the players are all going to see equal game time; but the core of the Irish team will have played two or three tough internationals and some of the biggest provisional games of the year in a seven week period.
One of the areas that Ireland always have a problem with at the big event is the attrition playing games so closely together can cause. To win the competition you have to play rugby for seven weekends in a row. New Zealand, the country with a seemingly unstoppable conveyor belt of talent make it look easy, but the rest of the world is praying for no injuries.
Last time around we played our most difficult pool game, against France, as the last one. And the injuries we sustained, Paul O’Connell the main one, hurt us the following week against Argentina.
So these November games, coupled with the tough provincial games, can act as a stress tester for the players and structures. Don’t expect any major changes to come from it, more likely it will be minor tweaks, almost unnoticeable from the outside, that will make next year’s tournament go more smoothly.
With luck at next year’s World Cup, we will play the final pool game against Samoa in a commanding position having beaten Scotland, Japan, and Russia. This should enable a “weakened” team. The truth is that barring injury to Murray and Sexton, we have decent cover in every position. Schmidt has to make a lot of tough decisions to select who’s playing.
Not that the fixture scheduling does us any favours next autumn. There are six days between both the Scotland and Japan and the Japan and Russia games. Some squad rotation will be necessary with the fringe players likely to get a run out in the last of the three.
So back to Italy and this weekend. Some of the marquee names are not even going. No Sexton. No O’Mahony. This is a chance for a few fringe players to step up and get into the mix.
Joey Carberry is the obvious choice to start at out half, but Ross Byrne will be itching to show what he can do in green. The back row has a Leinster look about it with Van Der Flier, Conan, and likely captain Ruddock in possession of the jerseys.
What can we learn? While this will be a tough match, there does not feel like there is much at stake. Lose and we can say that it was an experimental side, trying to find the right secondary combinations ahead of the World Cup. Win and we will say “So what?” – the result won’t prove anything.
Looking forward to the other games: Argentina, New Zealand, and even to the USA. These games are tastier, at least the first two.
Can we forget the thorn in our side that Argentina have been over the professional era, not least when they beat us in the knock out round last time, however, when we play them in regular test matches, they often do not have their whole squad to select from and the traffic is one-sided.
This time should be more interesting, provided they are not exhausted from a long Championship season.
We all know what playing New Zealand means. If we beat them, it will be the first time on Irish soil. Can we do it? Why not? Personally I think the skills are there, the strength is there, but we have quite shown that we have got that killer instinct of a mind-set that is needed.
New Zealand at their best have zero pity, zero remorse. They are ruthless and keep trying to score no matter what the margins.
We have to be more like them to beat them. Don’t look to South Africa or Australia, or even to an improving Argentina, for a model of how to beat them. It is possible, as shown at Soldier Field two years ago (I might watch the recording I have of the match, just to build up some belief!).
On to the USA. Those attending the match probably bought the tickets in a pair with either the Argentina or New Zealand games. Or were given the tickets as a promotion or gift. It is not a game to get excited by. I don’t expect any of the starters against New Zealand to be called to action in this game, barring injury.
What about Leinster?
The provinces still have to go out this weekend and earn their living. Leinster will head to South Africa to take on the Southern Kings, buoyant after their five tries to none victory over Treviso last weekend.
No one wants to play for their province when there are international jerseys up for grabs. It will be difficult for Dan Leavy in particular, who was so much a part of the Six Nations that it seems a crime to leave him out of the squad. But that’s the price you pay for an injury these days. He is finding it difficult to work his way back into the Leinster team, never mind the Ireland camp.
These are important games nonetheless. There are points up for grabs and the winning of these games can ensure home play-off fixtures come the end of the season.
The Leinster squad has a mix of experience and youth. It will be an interesting fixture and kick-off is at 12:45 Irish time on Sunday.