Ex­pect noth­ing ‘friendly’ next month

Non-tour­na­ment Tests mat­ter a great deal, es­pe­cially when it comes to de­vel­op­ing first-rate back-up play­ers

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley:

When World Rugby’s vice-chair­man Agustin Pi­chot and CEO Brett Gosper re­cently de­scribed non-tour­na­ment Tests as “friendlies”, it was a de­cid­edly disin­gen­u­ous de­scrip­tion and Pi­chot ought to know that as much as any­one.

Sure, it was in the con­text of pro­mot­ing an an­nual 12-team in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ment, which would en­tail scrap­ping the June and Novem­ber Test tours. Based on foot­ball’s new Eu­ro­pean Na­tions League, Pi­chot and Gosper want the top 12 ranked coun­tries to con­test an an­nual tour­na­ment hosted on an al­ter­nat­ing ba­sis in the north­ern and south­ern hemi­spheres.

The teams would be split into four groups of three and the tour­na­ment would be played over five dates, with three for pool matches and two dates for the semi-fi­nals and fi­nal. A dif­fer­ent coun­try would host each pool, as World Rugby looks for ways to grow the in­ter­na­tional game’s rev­enue.

“At the mo­ment 56 per cent of the games in in­ter­na­tional rugby in the world are friendlies,” said Gosper, “and that’s what we’re look­ing at and maybe swing­ing it back to­wards more mean­ing­ful, com­pet­i­tive games and that may be even with in­ter­ac­tion be­tween north and south.”

Aside from whether you might think this will de­tract from the Six Na­tions, Rugby Cham­pi­onship and most of all their own World Cup, un­like the dis­cred­ited friendlies in in­ter­na­tional foot­ball, such a de­scrip­tion falls way wide of the mark.

Al­low­ing for the repechage tour­na­ment in Mar­seille, where Canada, Ger­many, Hong Kong and Kenya will com­pete for the 20th and last place at next year’s World Cup, there will be noth­ing “friendly” over the next month’s packed global win­dow, not least on the 13 oc­ca­sions coun­tries from the Six Na­tions host those from the Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

There will be full houses ev­ery time for those, and this in­cludes all three games at the Aviva Sta­dium, with scarcely a hand­ful left for the USA game. One ven­tures that the ground could have been sold out twice over when New Zealand and Ire­land, cur­rently the world’s top two sides, meet there on Novem­ber 17th.

El­bow room

There is an­other ques­tion­able as­pect of World Rugby’s plans. While it will mean more mean­ing­ful Tests against tier-1 coun­tries for the tier-2 coun­tries who are ranked in the top 10 in a given year, it may re­duce the el­bow room for head coaches to ro­tate their squads. This in turn could mean more strain on the front­line play­ers.

Akin to other coun­tries in this Novem­ber win­dow per­haps, ideally Ire­land would like to win all four matches and use all 42 play­ers named in the squad last Wed­nes­day. The games against Italy in Chicago next Satur­day and against the USA on Novem­ber 24th, which book­end the month, of­fer the most scope to dig deep into the squad and thereby ex­pose more play­ers to Test rugby.

The signs are that a nom­i­nal first-choice XV to start against Ar­gentina in a fort­night and, by ex­ten­sion, ideally against the All Blacks as well a week later, will be ex­cused duty in Chicago. That makes ut­ter sense. A fur­ther pointer to this strat­egy was pro­vided by the provin­cial team se­lec­tions over the week­end.

Sch­midt’s hand has been forced fur­ther by the neck in­jury which has de­layed Conor Mur­ray’s sea­sonal reap­pear­ance un­til, hope­fully, the end of the month.

The ab­sence of the world’s best scrumhalf and best Ir­ish No 9 of all time sig­nif­i­cantly re­duces the chances of Ire­land com­plet­ing a clean sweep. In nine Tests against the All Blacks, Mur­ray has scored four tries. This in­cludes cru­cial tries in Ire­land’s win in Chicago and the Lions’ win in Welling­ton in the sec­ond Test. In­deed, in his last five meet­ings with them, Mur­ray has a highly cred­itable 2-1-2 record.

But all Test teams de­velop a de­gree of de­pen­dence on their world-class play­ers. That’s in­evitable. Even the All Blacks couldn’t stop play­ing Dan Carter in the 2004-2007 World Cup cy­cle, but that made them even more vul­ner­a­ble in their quar­ter-fi­nal against France.

Hence, per­haps, Mur­ray’s in­jury is at least par­tially ben­e­fi­cial. Since the last World Cup, Ire­land have played 27 Tests against Tier 1 coun­tries. Mur­ray has started 26 of them, and more of­ten than not played close to, or all, of the 80 min­utes. For ex­am­ple, last sea­son he started 10 out of Ire­land’s 11 Tests, the ex­cep­tion be­ing against Fiji, and of those 10 he played 70 min­utes or more in all bar the 56-19 home win over Italy.

Kieran Marmion has 22 caps but only five starts, against Canada, USA, Japan, Italy and Eng­land, when per­form­ing more than ef­fi­ciently in the 2017 Six Na­tions fi­nale in Dublin. But that was two sea­sons ago. Of Luke McGrath’s six caps, his only start was against Japan. John Cooney’s two caps amount to eight min­utes. He played only a minute in Aus­tralia, which was a minute more than Ross Byrne, an un­used sub in the third Test.

No less than Mur­ray, Ire­land are, un­der­stand­ably, also Johnny Sex­ton-de­pen­dent, and in the Test arena Joey Car­bery is al­most as cal­low as Byrne.

Then classy Car­bery is mak­ing rapid strides, and in a po­si­tion that sim­ply re­quires more game time than most, his move to Mun­ster is has­ten­ing his de­vel­op­ment. Of his dozen caps, only three have been from the off, against the USA, Fiji and Aus­tralia in last June’s first Test.

So, on a day given more emo­tional con­text by the like­li­hood of Dublin-born Ian McKin­ley fea­tur­ing off the bench for Italy, the ab­sence of Mur­ray and Sex­ton next Satur­day is no bad thing.

It doesn’t stop there. The sim­ple maths are that World Cup squads are re­stricted to 31. This is, there­fore, the last win­dow of op­por­tu­nity. It may merely help to fi­nalise the back-up play­ers, and in some cases the back-up to the back-up play­ers, but as the last World Cup and that quar­ter-fi­nal against the Pu­mas demon­strated, a team could sud­denly need a slew of them.

And the scope for fur­ther ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is al­most neg­li­gi­ble when de­fend­ing a Six Na­tions ti­tle, with next year’s quar­tet of warm-up matches just that. In most po­si­tions, the ship will have sailed by then.

Line speed

No less than Byrne, amid the in­creas­ing An­glo-in­fused in­flu­ence (noth­ing wrong with that), it will be in­ter­est­ing to see Will Ad­di­son and Sam Arnold in green, along with more of oth­ers, es­pe­cially Tadhg Beirne.

With his abil­ity to win turnovers and com­po­sure on the ball, he looks ready for the Pu­mas and the All Blacks. For all the hype about the un­der­stand­able All Blacks game, Ar­gentina have al­ready made strides un­der Mario Ledesma. Wins at home to South Africa and away to Aus­tralia were ev­i­dence of that.

“Yeah, big time,” agrees Mur­ray, forced to watch it all from the side­lines. “When they played South Africa, the one in Ar­gentina was im­pres­sive. Clas­sic Ar­gen­tinian stuff with their set-piece and their scrum, they are a team who put you un­der a lot of pres­sure, when you play against a team of such line speed, you re­alise how ef­fec­tive you can be when you do it, when you are on song, you al­most make teams not want the ball.

“Their fin­ish­ers, they showed a lot of fin­ish­ing abil­ity, which they did in the World Cup in that quar­ter fi­nal,” added Mur­ray, who ad­mit­ted: “We prob­a­bly put a lot of at­ten­tion on their pack and what they do up front and they got around us early on a cou­ple of times in that game.

“The All Blacks are go­ing to be a mas­sive test, an un­be­liev­ably tough test, but the week be­fore we play [Ar­gentina]. It will not be a ‘warm-up game’, it will be a proper Test match. And the Ital­ian game, what­ever side goes, that is a big test too. Italy are a side who have turned us over be­fore. It is an ex­cit­ing Novem­ber and then build­ing up to the All Blacks; what­ever the USA brings too.”

The All Blacks were made to look fairly hu­man when los­ing to South Africa in Welling­ton and again in Pre­to­ria be­fore mount­ing that ex­tra­or­di­nary come­back to snatch a 32-30 win from 30-13 down.

“It shows they are hu­man I sup­pose and the more you play them the more you re­alise that,” said Mur­ray, from ex­pe­ri­ence in his case.

But he adds: “They are just re­ally, re­ally clin­i­cal and South Africa just came with their game plan and Rassie [Eras­mus] ob­vi­ously did some­thing to mo­ti­vate them. No I don’t think their crown is slip­ping. I think they are still as good as they were. I think the gap might be clos­ing. We’ll see.

“Ob­vi­ously South Africa proved that over the Rugby Cham­pi­onship and we get the next shot at it and hope­fully we will get a good gauge on where things are at. It’s in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing. This game has been sold out for a long, long time and I’m look­ing for­ward to it.”

Clev­erly, as well as pick­ing a 52-man squad, the All Blacks are ready­ing them­selves for their end-of-year Eu­ro­pean tour with a two-leg, ac­cli­ma­tis­ing, re­con­nais­sance stopover mis­sion in Japan against the Wal­la­bies and the World Cup hosts.

Were they to win those games and also beat Eng­land in Twick­en­ham the week be­fore, and Ire­land to beat Italy and Ar­gentina, it will set up Novem­ber 17th at the Aviva rather nicely.

Yep, as friendlies go, that one should be fairly com­pet­i­tive and mean­ing­ful al­right.

‘‘ Even the All Blacks couldn’t stop play­ing Dan Carter in the 2004-2007 World Cup cy­cle, but that made them even more vul­ner­a­ble in their quar­ter-fi­nal against France

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROM­BIE/INPHO

Joey Car­bery and Kieran ■ Marmion are two Ire­land play­ers in need of in­ter­na­tional game time if they are to ef­fec­tive back-ups to Conor Mur­ray and Johnny Sex­ton.

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