First and foremost, the strength of the opponents will be difficult to overcome. As mentioned, all three are ranked ahead of us, and overall, the IRB rankings aren't a bad gauge for the relevant positions of each national team.
|Kahn Fotuali'i and Samoa are not to be underestimated this November. Photo: Getty Images|
Our second opponents, Australia, have been in terrible form recently. Winning only two of their Rugby Championship games after the lost series to the Lions, things were close to a crisis. Ewen McKenzie took control of a chaotic team and it's taken a while for things to improve, but in the last two games, the Wallabies have shown glimpses of potential. This could well spell bad news for Ireland, who might be expecting Australia to roll over.
|It took awhile, but new coach Ewen McKenzie was able to turn Wallaby fortunes around. A lesson perhaps for the incoming Irish coach? © Gallo Images|
With that in mind, and the huge debate created by this article, I've come up with matchday 23's for each game that try to give young players vital experience, and give fringe players get to stake a claim and regulars can get a chance to play into form, all while Ireland remain competitive.
|UPDATED: 23/10/2013 Pre Squad Selection|
As mentioned, Samoa will have the strongest scrum, and with Mike Ross potentially struggling at the moment, it seems the perfect time to test one of the backups. Declan Fitzpatrick has more experience than Moore, and has started the season scrummaging well, so he starts off the selection. Australia have the weakest scrum of the 3, and Moore deserves a chance, so I've put him in starting, while Mike Ross comes back in for New Zealand where we focus solely on a game similar to a World Cup final.
From there, Dave Kilcoyne is second choice loosehead (for now) and given last seasons improvements, I think he deserves a chance to show what he can do, while James Cronin or Jack McGrath come on early in the second half. Healy will be anxious to finally face Australia, and is clear choice for New Zealand. Whoever plays best from Cronin, McGrath and Kilcoyne is backup on the bench.
Given Richardt Strauss's unfortunate heart problems, Rory Best is a clear choice as hooker. I think his leadership will be key against Samoa, and I think he'll play all three games, with Sean Cronin the most likely backup, even though Damien Varley is perhaps the form choice.
Moving to the back row (as it'll explain the second row choices). Probably the biggest strength in depth that we have, even with a number of injuries. Currently, I would have Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip as the starting backrow for New Zealand. with Chris Henry a close backup. Given how close he is, I would put him in for Australia, moving Sean O'Brien to 6 and keeping Jamie Heaslip at 8, with Peter O'Mahony on the bench. I think this will give Ireland the best approach at the breakdown for the visit of Australia and Michael Hooper. Peter O'Mahony will provide quite an impact from the bench too. Against Samoa, I think Iain Henderson should be unleashed, while Peter O'Mahony should be given some leadership responsibilties from no. 8. Chris Henry is my choice for openside, with Sean O'Brien ably covering from the bench.
Given Paul O'Connell's importance and return injury woes, I don't think he can play all three games. Thus resting him against Samoa will give more responsibility to Rory Best and Peter O'Mahony. Originally I had Devin Toner and Dan Tuohy here, with my intention being that it's a straight fight between them for a potential bench spot in the following games. But I think with Samoa's strength, it would be wise to go with a combination, so I promoted Mike McCarthy, with Tuohy dropping to the bench. If Donnacha Ryan's injury proves to be serious, the fight between himself and McCarthy to partner will be moot, so I'd expect O'Connell and McCarthy, with Tuohy as backup. Or Henderson as an outside chance.
|Kieran Marmion is in line for his Irish debut. Photo: inpho photography|
Jonny Sexton is the clear outhalf, while there are finally some contenders for his backup. Ian Madigan was so far ahead of Jackson at the end of last season, and while Jackson has impressed this season, I don't think he's overtaken Madigan yet, and thus my choices for Samoa.
Gordon D'Arcy's partnership with Brian O'Driscoll will be vital for Ireland against New Zealand. I think Luke Marshall isn't too far behind, and his ability to cover 10, 12 and 13 gets him the bench spot. He's pushing hard for a starting spot, so I'd give him the start against Australia, while O'Driscoll's ability to play all three games is unlikely, giving a chance to see Henshaw and Darren Cave in the thirteen jersey, with the experienced Gordon D'Arcy best placed to guide him through it.
I'm not expecting Niall Morris to make the squad, thus Rob Kearney will be the starting fullback in each game, which will give him some time to build into something close to his top form. Putting someone who can cover outside centre on the bench against Samoa will allow Henshaw to move into fullback at some stage.
Wingers however I'm completely torn. The only thing I can decide on is Tommy Bowe is a certain starter, so I put him in for New Zealand and Australia, with the two wingers against Samoa in a straight fight for further inclusion. The inclusion of Henshaw on the bench for Australia is also tempting.
I went for Fitzgerald against New Zealand as I think his defense is the strongest of all the candidates, while I think Trimble's kick chase work ethic is the best and I can foresee a number of Conor Murray boxkicks targeting the Wallabies second and third choice wingers. If Craig Gilroy is back fit in time, he would be my choice.