Sunday 11 December 2016

Alan Quinlan: Tough back-row battle heats up nicely as Joe Schmidt faces big decisions

Alan Quinlan

Published 14/11/2016 | 02:30

Sean O'Brien of Ireland is tackled by Ray Barkwill, left, and Kyle Baillie of Canada during the Autumn International match between Ireland and Canada at the Aviva Stadium
Sean O'Brien of Ireland is tackled by Ray Barkwill, left, and Kyle Baillie of Canada during the Autumn International match between Ireland and Canada at the Aviva Stadium

Few people would have predicted that just a year after the World Cup, Joe Schmidt would be faced with the dilemma of picking either Peter O'Mahony or Sean O'Brien for his match day squad but such is the current depth of the back-row, that is exactly the position the Ireland coach will find himself in this week.

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Saturday night was an ideal time for guys to put their hand up for selection and none more so than in the back-row with Jordi Murphy ruled out for this weekend's rematch against New Zealand.

In my mind, it was a case of O'Mahony and O'Brien playing for a spot on the bench as Josh van der Flier's form is just too good to ignore.

It is amazing to think that we would be in a position to even be saying that but since CJ Stander has come into side, he has been outstanding and van der Flier is the form openside in the country at the moment.

Of course, Schmidt may opt to start O'Brien at seven but that would be incredibly harsh on van der Flier.

He looks really fit, really strong and the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the side is infectious.

He was brilliant off the bench in Chicago and that will count for a lot when Schmidt is weighing up his options this week. It may be a headache for the coach but it is exactly what he wants and it shows how far we've come since the World Cup.

There has been a transition over the last couple of years after we lost some iconic figures but I firmly believe that there has been a positive turn.

'At loosehead, Cian Healy (pictured) continues to keep the pressure on Jack McGrath.' Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
'At loosehead, Cian Healy (pictured) continues to keep the pressure on Jack McGrath.' Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

O'Mahony and O'Brien were two of the first names on the team sheet at the World Cup last year and there was a reliance on them but unfortunately for them, during their time out through injury, other guys have taken hold of the jerseys and that's the way it goes at the highest level.

O'Brien looked much sharper than he has done in recent weeks on Saturday.

He was hungry for possession and was clearly keen to make an impression.

He's getting very, very close. He's experienced, he's powerful and his ability to step up in big games is second to none but I'm not sure it will happen for him this weekend.

It's very hard to come back from long-term injuries and play at the pace of international games.

I think that pace has increased in recent years. It's relentless nowadays.

O'Mahony is working himself back from a similar situation but he has been out for longer than O'Brien.

I experienced a cruciate injury myself in the 2005/06 season and even though you get back playing (I got back at the tail end of that season), it was probably the following season that I was really able to get that level of fitness back again.

It's a tough call for Schmidt to make but it's a great position to be in. I suspect it could be O'Mahony who gets the nod on the bench, simply because he offers a lineout option.

It's incredible to think that someone of O'Brien's quality may not be in this week.

Keith Earls and Paddy Jackson played their way back into contention.

Earls is someone who Schmidt likes and he offers that extra attacking threat.

The quality of some of the younger guys that are coming through is genuinely exciting.

It's not that long ago that there were worries about the tighthead position but Tadhg Furlong has really stepped up to the mark and I thought Finlay Bealham was hugely impressive.

John Ryan did really well when he came on and fully deserved his first cap. Marty Moore is doing well at Wasps and we haven't even mentioned Mike Ross.

At loosehead, Cian Healy continues to keep the pressure on Jack McGrath.

He looks sharp and 17 carries was a great return from him on Saturday. Dave Kilcoyne also had a huge impact off the bench.

Although it wasn't perfect, to put 52 points on any side when you are blooding eight new caps is very positive.

There are options all over the pitch but it is always difficult to know what Schmidt is thinking. That will keep the players on their toes in training which is crucial because the mindset has to be spot on this week.

A New Zealand backlash is guaranteed and the players won't need anyone to tell them that but they will have to take their game to another level on Saturday.

It's vital that they keep that bit of fear factor. Any time you play against New Zealand, you know that they are capable of racking up a big score, it acts as a huge motivational factor.

They have to expect that the pace will be ferocious and it will probably be twice as fast as it was in Chicago.

To go out and replicate the same kind of performance; to keep their discipline, to limit their mistakes and to execute as well as they did the last day is going to be very difficult but that's the challenge they face.

Apart from acknowledging the backlash, Ireland have to embrace that fear that if they don't turn up, this New Zealand side is capable of putting 30 or 40 points on any team in the world - no matter who they are missing.

Their pride has been hurt and for such a proud rugby nation, they will arrive in Dublin desperate to set the record straight.

Even though Ireland have finally beaten them, they can undo some of what they achieved two weeks ago if they are not mentally right in training this week but under Schmidt, you'd expect that they will be.

If Ireland ask questions of New Zealand early on and frustrate them, a little bit of doubt could creep into their mindset.

This is a really good Irish team that now has serious strength in depth. The challenge for them is to show that again on Saturday evening.

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