Joe Schmidt has called up six Ulstermen for the Autumn tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina that take place in November.
Schmidt keeps his faith in captain Rory Best despite only making his first appearance of the season against La Rochelle while Rob Herring, Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale are rewarded for their fine starts to the season.
Former Ulsterman Chris Farrell, now at Munster, is set to make his international debut, while Jared Payne misses the cut as he is still recovering from a series of headaches picked up on the Lions’ Tour. Bowe and Trimble are ominous omissions.
Overall, Joe Schmidt has selected a relatively inexperienced squad, 23 of the 38 players have less than 20 caps for Ireland and 19 have ten caps or less. In the backline, only Keith Earls, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray have 30+ caps and will bring experience to the four uncapped players.
The selection of the Kearney brothers has sparked a bit of controversy as has the omission of Tiernan O’Halloran and Sean Cronin. Rather less surprising is the absence of Simon Zebo who signed a contract with Racing Metro earlier this week. The 35-times-capped Munsterman falls foul of the IRFU’s policy of not picking players playing outside of the four provinces.
In previous years, Ireland would have plumped for the experienced players that arguably don’t represent Ireland’s best opportunity at reaching a World Cup semi-final, so I’m hopeful that these internationals will give Joe Schmidt an option of developing successful partnerships in preparation for Japan 2019.
As for Ulster, it’s unlikely that any of the Ireland squad players will be included in the trip to Southern Kings. With both Rory Best and Rob Herring in the squad, the spotlight will fall on John Andrew to fulfil the hooker position and Adam McBurney is likely to be included on the Ulster bench as a replacement. However, Best and James Tracy are likely to be ahead of Herring in the pecking order, so expect his release back to Ulster for the Benetton match at the end of next month.
However, the loss of Henderson and Kieran Treadwell to the Ireland side will most likely hit Ulster hardest. They have a ready-made replacement for Iain Henderson in the shape of Matthew Rea. While still a distance to go, Rea has impressed in his limited appearances this season, so this is a perfect opportunity to get more game time and provide Les Kiss with another option. Nick Timoney, who is injured currently, and Caleb Montgomery will be vying to challenge Rea for the blindside spot.
Kieran Treadwell provides tenacity and physicality in the boiler room and he has been a major positive for Ulster this season and is going to be difficult to replace. Browne needs to rediscover his form of early last season or a lot of work is going to fall on the shoulders of O’Connor.
Callum Patterson could receive his first competitive appearance for Ulster in the absence of Stuart McCloskey having made a scoring debut against Barbarians at the end of last season as well as impressing in the friendly match against Wasps. However I suspect we’re more likely to see Bowe in the centre.
The meteoric rise of Jacob Stockdale to the leading Irish winger, and a shoe-in for a starting berth in the matches against South Africa and Argentina, gives Trimble a chance to find some form during Ulster’s trip to the Southern Kings. Craig Gilroy was also in sparking form during his Ulster A outing so it’s still a strong looking back three.
The wheels fell off the Ulster wagon last year and the Autumn test matches coincided with the dire display in Edinburgh. If Ulster dream of challenging at the top, they need to become more consistent when their internationals are not available as that is the biggest hurdle in the race to end Ulster’s trophy drought.
Forwards: Rory Best, Jack Conan, Ultan Dillane, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Dan Leavy, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Porter, Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, John Ryan, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, James Tracy, Kieran Treadwell.
Backs: Bundee Aki, Adam Byrne, Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Rob Kearney, Ian Keatley, Kieran Marmion, Stuart McCloskey, Luke McGrath, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale, Darren Sweetnam.