George Hook: Schmidt misses chance to gamble
Ireland coach's decision to opt for the tried and trusted disappointing for likes of Marshall
Published 09/11/2013 | 01:00
An exemplary track record allows for a modest start. With that in mind, the pressure is off Ireland coach Joe Schmidt ahead of this evening's opening November Test against Samoa.
Schmidt's success at Leinster and the manner in which the Irish province achieved European silverware under his tenure proves that regardless of the result today, the New Zealander is absolutely the right man to lead the national side over the next few years.
Just like in his first few months at Leinster, Schmidt will be given time and resources to implement his strategy with Ireland. His class and ability as a coach is obvious and his authority to succeed Declan Kidney is unquestioned – which is why his first team selection on Thursday was disappointing.
Rather than a side with youth and potential, Schmidt has reverted to type and plumped for the tried and trusted. The dog in the street knows what Fergus McFadden can do and his selection on the wing is as unimpressive as it is predictable.
McFadden has rarely displayed the type of form worthy of a regular international jersey and his name on the starting team sheet this evening's smacks of a hole being plugged rather than an opportunity being presented.
Similarly, 33-year-old Gordon D'Arcy at centre cannot have many more days left in a test jersey. Why not allow Luke Marshall – clearly the future at this level – the chance to gain some much needed international experience?
Paddy Jackson's inclusion at out-half owes a huge amount to Leinster coach Matt O'Connor. Had the Australian backed Ian Madigan instead of Jimmy Gopperth in the opening two rounds of the Heineken Cup, I have no doubt that Madigan would be running the back line this evening rather than his Ulster equivalent.
To his credit, Jackson has silenced a lot of his critics with his form for Ulster this season, though big question marks remain over his ability to kick goals in pressure situations.
His composure in Swansea when he kicked Ulster to victory against the Ospreys in the Pro12 was an important marker in his development, but this afternoon represents another step-up. He needs a big game to keep Madigan at number three in the pecking order.
Samoa will do as they always have done. Their commitment in the tackle will cause Ireland problems unless Jackson stands flat and gives the midfield and the support runners the opportunity to break a fast-closing, but perhaps not cohesive blitz defence.
Conor Murray, who has been guilty of some schoolboy howlers in the last nine months, faces a supreme test of his ability in the form of Khan Fotuali'i. If the Munster man and the Irish back-row allow the Northampton No 9 to dominate, we could be in for a long afternoon.
Samoa know only one way to play – fast and abrasive, taking as many casualties as possible along the way. If Ireland are not fully committed they will get hurt and with an already crowded injury list in the camp, Schmidt cannot afford any more absentees.
The key to victory will lie in the tactics employed. Ireland must out-think their opponents and move the ball around as much as possible. Samoa are not known for their fitness over 80 minutes, but they thrive on the physical battles and will lack nothing in commitment.
Set-pieces must improve from Declan Kidney's time in charge. John Plumtree has been speaking all week about the importance of individual responsibility.
Rory Best has a crucial role to play in delivering consistent ball in the line-out and securing the strike at scrum time. Jack McGrath, at 24 years of age, is an exciting gamble at loosehead and he deserves his chance to impress.
Samoa are ranked above Ireland in the world rankings and their demolition of Wales last year was put down to the poor standard of their opponents.
Yet, within months, the defeated principality were champions of Europe and within a year were the backbone of a Lions trouncing of Australia.
Last year Samoa put a pack on the field with a combined weight of 970kg, which made them the heaviest pack in the world, even heavier than New Zealand and South Africa.
Samoa play just one top-tier test match on this tour so they will be entirely focused on Ireland. On the other hand, Schmidt's men will be looking at the bigger fish of the Wallabies and the All Blacks.
Samoa has a total population of 180,000 – less than the number of rugby players in New Zealand. That a country of such tiny resources can challenge the best in the world is extraordinary.
Their success is based on the fact that all but three of the touring party ply their trade outside the island. As Argentina have proved, getting other nations to pay the players' wages is a potent combination.
Schmidt has all the tools necessary to avoid an opening-day defeat. McGrath and injury-enforced selections aside, he has gone with experience over the exuberance of youth. Samoa are not the mish-mash, unorganised opposition of old, but if Ireland play smart, selective rugby, they should have enough to come out on top.
However, do not be surprised if Ireland go the same way as Wales.