By Brendan Cole
Two of the more interesting stories in world rugby will collide at 5.45pm this evening in a match which may not see Ireland transformed to the extent that some are hoping for.
The hope is that the clash will see two teams playing open and attractive rugby but while Joe Schmidt’s reputation is for fostering an attractive and open brand of rugby, the New Zealander is a pragmatist first and foremost.
At their strongest, as wins over Australia, Wales, Italy and Scotland in the last few seasons prove, Samoa are seriously dangerous tourists and for all that they have improved their set-piece, they would relish a high-tempo, helter-skelter encounter.
It would be a surprise to see a coach of Schmidt’s calibre giving it to them.
Ireland supporters may have to wait a bit longer for the style to change dramatically.
On the selection front, it is unfortunate that neither team is at its strongest.
The Samoans were unable to bring Japan-based pair Alesana Tuilagi and Seilala Mapusua on tour, while winger David Lemi and full-back/centre Paul Williams miss out through injury. Either of the latter pair would have captained this side had they been fit, and Samoa must also handle that loss of leadership and experience.
Even with those players absent, there is plenty of quality in the backline. Kahn Fotuali’i has been one of the best scrum-halves in European rugby over the last couple of years while at out-half and outside-centre, the Pisi brothers Tusi and George have shown an ability to pick apart even top class defences through footwork and acceleration. George’s size is another threat to an Irish backline that can be vulnerable to direct, confrontational carrying.
And while the wrecking ball Tuilagi will be missed, the back-three also contains a serious talent in the shape of Hurricanes wing Alapati Leiua, who brings power, size and serious pace to the mix.
Up front, Samoa are also down a few big players with tighthead Census Johnson and second row Daniel Leo among those missing out. They have also lost George Stowers, one of the stars of last year’s win over Wales, with the 34-year-old number eight having moved back to New Zealand to play ITM cup rugby.
As with Ireland, there is strength on the bench with Ti’i Paulo and Joe Tekori primed to join the tight-five battle in the second half while recently acquired openside Jack Lam, born in New Zealand and an underage player for Australia, will test Ireland’s ability to protect their own ball on the ground.
As a unit, this summer showed the Samoan pack to be a well drilled attacking unit, with a particularly strong ability generate momentum through pick and goes and short passes.
Leinster, who supply four of the five tight five forwards, have been vulnerable to that approach this year and that may prove true of Ireland as well - the likes of Mike Ross and Devin Toner bring more to the set piece than they do the battle either side of the ruck.
If the Samoan forwards can get Ireland inching backwards in the tight, sucking the back row and backs in towards the ruck, the backline undoubtedly has the footwork and acceleration to take advantage, while under former sevens coach Stephen Betham there is a clear licence to try things from anywhere on the pitch.
Turnover specialists Chris Henry and Rory Best have crucial roles to play for Ireland.
As for how they will look to use the ball, despite Schmidt’s reputation for fostering open, creative rugby, Ireland look set to pursue a tailored approach for this match.
It has certainly not escaped the notice of the video analysts that Samoa conceded a slew of tries off lineouts against South Africa this summer. They have also been vulnerable to turnovers.
Ireland have four excellent jumpers in Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip and will aim for there to be plenty of action out of touch. All concerned will hope Best’s throwing wobbles stay away for the day.
In the backline, this will be a huge test of composure for the youthful half-back pair of Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson. Samoa’s defence is not just about big tackles, but their ability to spot the hit early and time it is still a major feature.
Jackson does not have the legs to run the loops which are Sexton’s trademark and does not pose much of a breaking threat either.
Ireland do, of course, have quality strike runners in the back division with Brian O'Driscoll and Tommy Bowe both capable of carving open any defence given the right opportunity.
But they may have to wait a while as all told, it looks as though the plan is to play tight, set-piece oriented rugby for the opening 50 minutes before unleashing the cavalry off the bench with Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien capable of changing the dynamic up front and Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan there to ramp up the tempo out and ambition out wide.
All told, it promises to be a difficult afternoon with Ireland more likely to squeeze the life out of Samoa than rip them apart in the wide channels. A strong finish may just see Ireland establish separation on the scoreboard late in the game.
Given the scalps Samoa have collected in recent years, that will be a more than reasonable start to the Schmidt regime, with bigger and better to come over the next two weeks.
Ireland 23-16 Samoa
Live television coverage of Ireland v Samoa from 17:00 on Saturday 9 November on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage on Saturday Sport from 14:45 on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).