Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt announced his extended squad for the upcoming Autumn International Test series on Thursday, with the most notable absence from squad being Simon Zebo.
Following the Munster man’s mid-week revelation that he is to leave the province at the end of the season for a new career in the Top 14, it was wondered if the Cork man’s international career was to be put on hold.
Schmidt emphatically answered the questions with his squad selection. Gone was Zebo and in his place was the return of fit-again Rob Kearney and the inclusion of Munster’s Andrew Conway and Leinster’s Joey Carbery as potential cover.
With Kearney’s string of injuries in recent seasons and Zebo’s ascension to the number 15 jersey, the full-back starting spot appeared to have transitioned to the Munster man.
His shock announcement this week, however, immediately undermined the stability at the back. If Zebo was no longer to be considered, who could step in to support and potentially take over from Kearney?
Luckily, Ireland has seen a wealth of full-back talent emerge from the academy systems in recent seasons, with Carbery, Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran and Conway all putting their hand up for a chance to prove themselves.
The versatility of Conway and Carbery saw both selected by Schmidt for next month’s Test series, where they will offer options across the back line and at out-half.
For O’Halloran, who has excelled for Connacht in recent seasons, it was once again a case of ‘surplus to requirements’.
That may be about to change, however, as following Connacht’s PRO14 come-from-behind 20 – 16 victory over Munster at the Sportsgrounds on Friday, Schmidt may have to make a few adjustments.
With both Conway and O’Halloran giving good accounts of themselves, a red card for the Munster man mid-way through the second half has now cast a long shadow over the 27-year-old’s potential involvement with Ireland next month.
An elbow to the face of Jack Carty during an aerial collision saw referee Nigel Owens send Conway to the stands and now the Munster back must wait to see if the citing committee will level charges and possible suspensions following a review of the incident.
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Should Conway indeed be handed a ban, it could well see him ruled out of Ireland’s involvement next month. However, given his solid disciplinary record and potential appeals from Munster, any ban could be as short as a single game, which would only rule him out of Ireland’s clash with the Springboks on November 11.
With fresh full-back questions now being posed for Ireland’s coaching staff, Tiernan O’Halloran has done all he can to make them easy to answer.
Against Munster on Friday, the dynamic and powerful full-back exposed Munster’s defence on numerous occasions and crossed for a try on 22 minutes.
Throughout the contest, the 27-year-old posed a significant threat for Munster, ever eager to run through defensive lines and go on sniping runs down the wings.
If Schmidt was there with a scorecard for Conway and O’Halloran, it’s fair to say the Connacht man came out on top, hands down. This is despite a second-half moment that saw him spill the ball into touch following a wayward JJ Hanrahan kick to touch.
Conway will now be nervously awaiting his fate. There is a real chance of suspension and though it will likely not rule him completely out of the Ireland’s Autumn series, any availability, coupled with the strong performance from O’Halloran on Friday, could see Schmidt rethink his back-line options and do a straight swap between the pair.
With Ireland’s Number 15 jersey genuinely up for grabs for the first time in years, Conway, O’Halloran and Leinster’s Carbery are now set to audition for their place in the squad.
Any slip up by one will hand the advantage to his counterparts, much like a strong performance will boost one’s own chances.
On these facts alone, Connacht’s victory over Munster on Friday could well have seen a huge swing in the respective fortunes of Conway and O’Halloran.
Whether Schmidt sees it this way will become evident in the days ahead. It now seems to hang on whether Conway is suspended or not.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena