I have always understood test rugby to be the pinnacle of the sport. Wearing the national colours and playing the best the game has to offer is the greatest honour, we are led to believe.
Simply put, if they go and schedule test matches just one week after major domestic finals in the northern hemisphere, then nothing I said in that first paragraph is true.
Contests like Argentina v Ireland, New Zealand v England, Australia v France and South Africa v Wales are meant to be ones for everyone to savour. Sure, “hardcore” rugby fans like myself can appreciate the need to give fringe players a go with RWC2015 in mind, but for me, these matches should be used to appeal to a much, much wider audience and thus should feature the best players.
I have harped on this for a long time now…the last time it got to me was when Felipe Contepomi couldn’t take part in Argentina’s first involvement in annual competition because of club commitments. It seems absolutely nothing has changed since then.
We hear about all these changes coming down the track but the ones the game badly needs, like an international calendar that makes some sense to both hemispheres, don’t even appear to be on the table.
But look….Ireland have two test matches to get through over the coming weeks, it’s a chance for Joe Schmidt to spend some time with his squad, so far be it from me to downplay the importance of a tour. I guess I’m a bit of an idealist when it comes to what I feel should be the ideal format of the sport.
Test number one sees an Irish side with what seems to be a perfect blend of nailed-on starters and hopefuls. Many have noted that it’s an Ulster-heavy lineup, but personally I wish this tendency to take a provincial inventory with every selection would stop.
Still, we all know there will be much made of the centre pairing of Luke Marshall and Darren Cave, and not just because of their club colours. Both can definitely do with not just one but two good outings on this tour - Marshall to put this concussion business to bed once and for all, and Cave to do similar to the unfortunate “face-doesn’t-fit” malarkey. For me, that applies more pressure than the whole BOD-succession thing ever could.
It won’t hurt the cause for either of them that they have played together several times before, and with another experienced pairing at half back supplying them, could well impress.
Then there’s Simon Zebo. He has to show he is capable of being the type of winger demanded by the Joe Schmidt gameplan. I don’t mean that as a “Leinster is better than Munster” point…I mean it as a “what a coach wants is more important than the player” one. We all know of Zebo’s x-factor credentials, and should a broken play opportunity arise for him he could well show them. But when it comes to covering his defensive channel and cutting in off the wing to keep the supply of front-foot ball going, it remains to be seen. I want to see it from him as much as anyone, so trust me when I say that if I do see it, I’ll call it.
In the pack, Jordi Murphy will need to be quick to stick on the 8 jersey because Heaslip could well stick it on out of habit! But it is certainly a great opportunity for him to start.
Another back rower looking to impress is of course Robbie Diack. Can’t say I’m a fan of his for the Irish 6 jumper but much like Zebo I will be happy to be proven wrong. Of course the 7 jumper is in the more than capable hands of Chris Henry (would he ever imagine being the most senior international back rower in a test match?) and it will be interesting to see how the three get on against what should be an aggressive Puma pack.
And then there’s Iain Henderson. Superb and all a season that Devin Toner has had, he just needs one slip and his place will be gone. I have a strong feeling that young Iain’s name will be known across Europe by this time next year if he continues on his current form.
Some interesting names on the Irish bench…just as I was making my peace with Ian Madigan going with the “Emerging” Squad he gets called up for this tour to effectively play second fiddle much as he had done at Leinster all season. I actually thought being “cock of the walk” as he would have been in Romania could have been good for him, but still he needs to knuckle down in Argentina and seize his chances if and when they come
Elsewhere we have come Connacht representation in Rodney Ah You and Kieran Marmion - both may in positions where we seem to be very well stocked at present, but particularly in Marmion’s case this shot in the full team is much deserved and hopefully a decent amount of game time will stand to him down the line.
I’m not afraid to admit I know little or nothing about this Pumas matchday 23. I have to assume that they will have a strong pack plus one or two promising breakthrough players who will have good outings on this tour.
But on the results side of things, even though we are travelling when we go as Six nations champions with names like O’Connell, Best and Sexton in the lineup, we have to be expected to win. And that is an expectation that hopefully this squad will grow more accustomed to as the Schmidt era evolves.
I’ll go conservative with my final score prediction but hopefully we will have a decent display to will yield a bigger margin. Ireland by 6. JLP