Having been thrown in at the deep end against World champions South Africa, Jimmy O’Brien is now set to make his third appearance of the Bank of Ireland Nations Series – in a third different position.
O’Brien switches from full-back to the left wing for Saturday’s visit of Australia, with his coolness under pressure very evident since he was pulled from the Ireland ‘A’ team to play the All Blacks XV just a fortnight ago.
Robbie Henshaw’s injury brought the Eadestown man into Ireland’s matchday 23 for the South Africa game, and having thought he would ‘get on for two minutes at the end’, O’Brien made a much earlier-than-expected debut.
Replacing the injured Stuart McCloskey just before the half hour mark, it was a baptism of fire for the 25-year-old coming in at outside centre, but he showed exactly why he was an EPCR European Player of the Year nominee last season.
His first international start followed against Fiji last week, and Andy Farrell has given him his full backing as part of a potent looking back-three to take on the Wallabies under the Aviva Stadium floodlights.
“Obviously Jimmy’s got a left foot, which is pretty important in world rugby at this stage,” said the Ireland head coach, who has made seven changes in personnel.
“Hugo (Keenan) coming back in gives us what he always gives us, solidity across the park. Mack (Hansen) being able to roam and do what he does best.
“It gives us a nice balance across the back-three. All three of those guys are the type of players that love to make a difference on the ball or off the ball, attack or defence. So we’re excited to see how those three go.”
O’Brien has already got 130 minutes of Test rugby under his belt, and with two run-outs against the Māori All Blacks from the summer tour, Farrell has seen first-hand what a skilful, all-round footballer the former Ireland Sevens international is.
His movement on the ball and pinpoint pass to set up Hansen’s try against the Springboks gave a glimpse of what he can do in attack, and he is hoping to show more of his skills out wide this weekend.
“There’s always opportunity with injuries or form or what we’re seeing in training, that always shapes you in different ways in every camp,” acknowledged Farrell.
“But Jimmy’s form, him being in camps a couple of times before, and just seeing how unflappable he is. He has all the hallmarks of a great, composed international player.
“Somebody who can do what he does in many different positions, and he doesn’t flap around panicking about moving positions. He’s just being himself wherever he’s picked. Those things are pretty important in any international squad.”
O’Brien’s encouraging start to his international career, coupled with the versatility he has shown, will certainly stand to him heading into a Rugby World Cup year. There are others too putting their hands up as we approach the turn of the year.
Ulster ace McCloskey gets his third start of the November run, joining forces with Garry Ringrose in a centre partnership that will come up against the young Brumbies-Reds combination of Len Ikitau and Hunter Paisami.
While Bundee Aki is back from suspension to provide cover from the bench, Farrell insisted: “I think Stu’s earned the right to go again. The first game was a bit different, and the second game different again.
“We’re hoping to get a better performance against a different side in Australia. We think that would suit Stu as well.
I don’t have to say much to the players at all (about lifting the performance from Fiji). They know. They know what we’re after, what we want to achieve going into this game, and they know what we want to look at Sunday, Monday, coming back into camp.
“It’s an honest procedure and we work it out together. That’s what we are, we’re an honest bunch. You keep being honest and throwing things out there that are hopefully going to improve the group.
“Then the trust grows and we get better together. There’s no point pushing anything under the carpet, otherwise we’ll lose an opportunity.”
A week on from his international debut, Munster out-half Jack Crowley is standing by to win his second cap as a replacement. 21-year-old Leinster lock Joe McCarthy is another notable addition to the bench.
They are two promising prospects for Farrell and his fellow coaches to work with, Crowley having been one of Emerging Ireland’s stars in South Africa, while the uncapped McCarthy has been building steadily from the summer tour experience through to Emerging Ireland and Ireland ‘A’.
If the powerful Dublin University clubman is introduced by Farrell on Saturday night, he will be become Ireland’s fifth new cap of the Bank of Ireland Nations Series after O’Brien, Jeremy Loughman, Crowley and Cian Prendergast.
Talking about the pair’s inclusion in the squad to play Australia, Farrell remarked: “Jack is another week down the line as far as the experience of being in the group. All the emotions going into a first cap are pretty daunting for anyone to handle, whether they admit it or not.
“So, he’s got that off his back now and he’s able to get down to how he’s going to get better as a player and help run the side. He’s been great this week – I like his composure, I like his character.
“Obviously he’s a young kid, like big Joe making his debut this week. They’re young kids, they’re going to make errors. But playing them in a good side will help them develop.
“Joe has grown in many areas. He’s obviously got a point of difference, and it’s not just his size. It’s his energy, it’s his want to have big moments within the game.
“But he’s grown in all areas, and it’s been great to take him on tour, and then Emerging Ireland. He didn’t get much of an opportunity with the ‘A’ game, and he’s been out of camp for a week, but he’s earned the right to have a crack and show us what he’s learned.
“It’s not going to be perfect for him, but the bits that we’ve been talking about over the last few months, we want to see improvement on that. He’s a doer, Joe.
“He likes to get amongst it and get stuck in, so he won’t shy away from the occasion, that’s for sure. We’re excited with what he’s going to bring off the bench.”
Ireland have not faced the Wallabies since winning the 2018 series Down Under, which saw them come back from an opening 18-9 defeat to win 26-21 in Melbourne and 20-16 in Sydney.
There are eleven players from that tour who are set to be involved on Saturday – current captain Jonathan Sexton, Ringrose, Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Jack Conan and Aki.
On current form and with home advantage, Ireland are rated as 1/5 favourites with some bookmakers to see out 2022 in winning fashion. However, Farrell reckons they will have to do it the hard way against an Australian side that ‘play a great brand of rugby’.
“Australia have a couple of things to hang their hats on in terms of motivation, etc. But in reality, ten changes for them and I suppose they get the leaders back in the room, so there’s a different vibe there straight from the start,” added the Wigan man.
Those guys are the ones that took to the field against Scotland and came so close to winning in Paris. Like we’ve said all week, we know how difficult that is.
“I’m sure that they will be using last week (their defeat to Italy) as motivation, and obviously putting that together with coming to the Aviva and taking our scalp, I’m sure that fires them up even more.
“The Australians are a great team to watch. They play a great brand of rugby, and knowing what they’re going to bring the party on Saturday night, it’s going to make for a brilliant spectacle.”