Blue tint can't camouflage emerging strength in depth
Hard to blame coach for relying on players who know his methods, writes Jim Glennon
A wonderful finale to a historic tournament and, while we certainly rode our luck at times in Paris, over the course of the tournament Ireland were deserving of the championship victory.
We don't always come away on the right side of a 'skin-of-the-teeth' contest, and anyone who does will always have used their share of luck, but this year's championship effectively boiled down to the three games with the tightest winning margins – England's opening-day defeat by France and subsequent victory over Ireland, and Ireland's success in Paris.
While the June tour to Argentina will officially bring the curtain down on Joe Schmidt's first season in charge, there is a palpable feeling, with both the Autumn Series and Six Nations behind us, that the international season is over and that the summer trip represents the start of Schmidt Phase Two. If autumn and spring were about the immediate, Argentina will be about maintaining confidence and renewing momentum among the wider squad, a crucial stage in the build-up to next year's World Cup.
Selection was a topic of debate throughout this year's tournament with injuries playing a key role. January's doomsday scenario of Ireland struggling without Seán O'Brien never came to pass – the emergence of Chris Henry as a flanker of true Test quality and the continued progress of Peter O'Mahony saw to that. And if there were injuries elsewhere, there was a queue of those able to step into the breach as required.
Some of the selections were surprising, and possibly even tinged with controversy, depending largely, it seems, on one's provincial leaning. For example, not many would have foreseen in January a championship-winning team starting every game with Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble on the wings. And yet both had excellent tournaments, reaching new heights in their careers.
The omission of such as Simon Zebo, Luke Marshall, Tommy O'Donnell, David Kilcoyne and Donnacha Ryan was questioned, at times with at least an innuendo of favouritism towards players from Leinster. The composition of the final match-day squad of 23 was 15 from Leinster, a quartet from Ulster, a pair of Munstermen, and Johnny Sexton. The coach was courageous in his selections, and confident enough to stick with his choices when the pressure was on, but fortune favoured his bravery too.
Schmidt's tenure in Leinster taught us that brave selection and substitution calls don't faze him; on the contrary, in fact, they've become his trademark. He picks a particular squad with the collective skill-set to implement a specific game plan against the particular opposition on the day.
The stat in relation to the composition of the squad by province is a stark one nonetheless. Fifteen Leinster players, in addition to Sexton, is a huge contingent and, had things evolved differently, would have handed the critics a strong rod with which to beat the coach and his staff. Having said that, however, while some of the criticism before the game in Paris was surprising, maybe my views would be different if the boot was on the other foot with only a handful of Leinster players in the squad.
The reality is that the schedule allotted to international rugby provides coaches with the briefest opportunities for quality time with their players. The Irish performance against Australia in November was ascribed at the time to the level of detail the players were asked to absorb in the days leading up to the game and, as a consequence, their physical intensity, the fundamental quality of any competitive unit, fell short.
Familiarity is obviously a major reason, and an understandable one, for the high numbers of Leinster players. Schmidt's deep knowledge of the group he coached, and their familiarity with his methods, game plans, and areas of priority can't be ignored, and would have applied equally had it been one of the other provinces. However, injuries played their part too. Zebo, O'Donnell, and Ryan, for example, all had injury-stricken seasons. With Schmidt, the players in situ, if they are carrying out the role required of them, are rewarded.
I've written previously of the structure in New Zealand whereby young players move clubs to
wherever their best chance of game-time might be, thus gaining earlier exposure to high-level rugby, ultimately enhancing their prospects of national selection and also ensuring an extensive pool of players from which to choose. Provincial loyalties here are so strong that such a system is almost impossible but we would be in a far stronger position were it to be achieved. A more even spread of internationals across the provinces would provide us with greater strength in depth.
Compiling a list of those relatively unexposed so far in 2014 is an interesting exercise. Forwards: Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Kilcoyne, Marty Moore, Dan Tuohy, Ryan, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, O'Donnell, Rhys Ruddock, Stephen Ferris, O'Brien. Backs: Kieran Marmion, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave, Marshall, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Bowe, Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Craig Gilroy. That's quite a list, and bodes well for the future.
Schmidt aimed to start 21 players in the Six Nations and while he failed to reach his quota all the signs are present in that group that this is possibly our strongest-ever squad, auguring well for the defence of the championship and the run-in to the World Cup. And you can do your own provincial breakdown of that group.
Sunday Indo Sport