Analysis: Luke McGrath's exceptional support play may earn him the nod to start
There were an awful lot of positives to draw from Ireland's crushing 54-7 win over Italy on Saturday.
Jordan Larmour scored a hat-trick, Tadhg Beirne bagged a brace, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan impressed in a new-look back-row while Luke McGrath slotted in nicely alongside Munster fly-half Joey Carbery in the halves.
McGrath played his first match for Ireland in nearly a year in Chicago and marked his return to international rugby with Ireland's second try of the game after a beautiful break by Jordan Larmour created the initial opportunity for the Leinster scrum-half.
Conor Murray's neck injury has created a situation where McGrath, Kieran Marmion and John Cooney will all battle it out for the right to start with not an awful lot separating all three players.
Marmion is the favourite to start against Argentina this weekend having played 22 times under Schmidt, compared to Cooney and McGrath who have played just eight games between them, but with the gap between all three players so minute, it's interesting to take a look at their try scoring statistics at club level.
- Luke McGrath - 28 tries in 102 games for Leinster (0.27 tries per game)
- John Cooney - six tries in 31 games for Ulster (0.19 tries per game)
- Kieran Marmion - 25 tries in 148 games for Connacht (0.16 tries per game)
With the likes of Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls in the Ireland squad, scrum-half is not necessarily an area that Joe Schmidt will be expecting a lot of tries from, but McGrath's support play is as big an asset to him as say Cooney's goal-kicking is for him or Marmion's versatility is for him.
McGrath's try against Italy is indicative of his instincts and you can notice that he's actually ahead of the ball when Larmour first makes the break against Italy before he quickly realigns and puts himself in a position where he can receive the ball and ultimately score.
The 25-year-old repeatedly popped up in similar positions in Leinster's 52-3 demolition of Wasps last month at the RDS.
He bagged a two-try brace in the comprehensive victory but his support play that led to his second try was very similar to the score he notched in Chicago.
Once again he starts well ahead of the play, and while he can't exactly legislate for the brilliance of Tadhg Furlong, once the break is made he quickly makes ground on winger James Lowe and gets himself into a position where he can cross the line untouched.
Similarly, against the Scarlets at the RDS last season, McGrath bagged another try through sheer workrate and a desire to support the ball carrier.
The excellence of James Lowe cannot be understated here and McGrath does not score the try unless Lowe is unable to free his hands and offload the ball, but then by the same token, there's no offload to give if McGrath does not make the effort to put himself in a position where he can receive possession.
With so little separating McGrath, Cooney and Marmion, small details like support play cannot be overlooked when trying to identify the best option for Ireland in the absence of Conor Murray.
Argentina and New Zealand will be a significant step up over the next two weeks compared to the experimental Italian side that turned up in Chicago last weekend, but with the All Blacks averaging 37.5 points during this year's Rugby Championship, and 25 points against Ireland over two Tests in 2016, Schmidt will need all the points he can get if he is to guide Ireland to a maiden victory in Dublin over the two-time defending world champions.
Former Ireland international Andrew Trimble said that Ireland will benefit from Murray not playing this month but added that there's only so much that can be drawn from McGrath's performance against Italy and that Kieran Marmion will likely start against the All Blacks next weekend should he produce a similar display against Argentina this Saturday.
"What will be good for Ireland is the opportunity to find out who will be second choice," Trimble said on the latest episode of Baz and Andrew's House of Rugby.
"Not that there's no point in investing in other guys, there is of course because you can always pick up injuries and it's good to have that depth, but it would be nice to have clarity on who to really focus on coming in as second choice.
"We got a little bit of appreciation as to how good Luke was at the weekend. He went really good I thought, but again, he went really well against a second string Italian side and that doesn't really tell us much.
"It tells us about as much as it told us about Jordan Larmour. He's a good operator, the same is definitely true for Luke, he's a very good player, but we didn't really find out much.
"It looks like Marmion is going to get a go there and if Marmion puts in a like-for-like performance that Luke put in at the weekend then I think just the fact that Marmion does the same performance against Argentina is going to trump Luke doing that performance against Italy for me."