1. Potential debutants
Joe Schmidt has included 3 uncapped players in his squad for the forthcoming Guinness series tests against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand. Hoping to make their first test appearances are Leinster’s David Kearney and Jack McGrath, who deserves a place ahead of David Kilcoyne, while Munster back row James Coughlan has every chance of a first cap just ahead of his 33rd birthday in December.
Kearney in particular has been in sparkling form for Leinster over the last 12 months and looks set to join his brother Rob in the Irish backline at some stage in the autumn. Kearney, 24, whose inclusion edges out Andrew Trimble, already has a Heineken Cup winner’s medal to his name so comes well prepped for international rugby.
2. The Leinster connection
When Joe Schmidt swapped his Leinster Blue tracksuit for the green of Ireland his familiarity with the IRFU undoubtedly worked in his favour. It was a natural appointment not least because during his time at Leinster Schmidt will have worked with many of the current squad. Those players Schmidt coached at Leinster will probably have an advantage when it comes to his initial squad selections, and Eoin Reddan has arguably been the first to benefit. Reddan makes Schmidt’s 34-man squad ahead of Connacht’s Kieran Marmion and Paul Marshall despite limited game time and recent patchy form. Kevin McLaughlin is another who Schmidt held in high regard at Leinster, perhaps undervalued by the previous Ireland management it wouldn’t be a massive surprise if Joe Schmidt found a place for McLaughlin in the back row despite Ireland’s riches in that particular area.
3. A partner for Paul O’Connell
Let’s presume that O’Connell will start if available, the injury enforced withdrawal of Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan’s surprising absence opens a position in the second row. Mike McCarthy might be considered the front runner but it’s his Leinster teammate Devin Toner who has started the year with greater gusto, making good use of his 6’10’’ frame in a Leinster set piece notably weakened by the absence of Leo Cullen. Dan Tuohy is re-established in the Ulster pack and after a couple of strong performances in North America has re-emerged as an option for Joe Schmidt. Tuohy has helped Ulster to a flying start in the Heineken Cup, recording some of the top tackling statistics, and offers a greater ball carrying threat than Toner which may sway the decision his way.
4. A record breaking centre partnership
While Brian O’Driscoll remains an injury doubt for the series, a date for his return from a calf problem has not been set in stone, his potential selection with Gordon D’Arcy would see them level again with All Black pair Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith who surpassed their record 50 test centre partnership during the Rugby Championship just finished. Nonu is included in the New Zealand touring party, but Smith has been given time off to recharge the batteries, opening the door for O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, if selected, to snatch back their record for the time being at least. Luke Marshall, fully recovered from three consecutive concussions and playing well for Ulster, may stand in D’Arcy’s way though.
5. Exiles out of sight, out of mind
The IRFU have made it their clear preference that Ireland squads are picked from the four Irish provinces. That has always been the case. However, Sexton’s inclusion while playing his rugby in the Top14 reopens the debate and offers hope to those exiles impressing away from these shores. Sexton is the sole exile on this occasion, despite the good form of Niall Morris at Leicester Tigers and Robin Copeland at Cardiff Blues. Not that a few more overseas inclusions would even open the floodgates. Thankfully there’s more than enough quality at the provinces to ensure that the makeup of the squad would remain very similar, but that may not always be the case. Looking at the current Welsh squad, you have Paul James, Luke Charteris, Dan Lydiate, James Hook and George North all playing outside of Wales but included by Warren Gatland for their autumn fixtures. For Ireland, Morris is the obvious exclusion but there are others who should be given a fairer chance, Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten at Exeter Chiefs come to mind while farther afield half back James Hart has just signed a new deal to stay with Grenoble. One or two of these players may be worth a punt.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images