Alan Quinlan: Joe Schmidt has some tough selection calls to make - I expect three star forwards will miss out
When Ireland beat France at the 2015 World Cup, it’s unlikely that Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose, Donnacha Ryan, CJ Stander or Josh van der Flier’s names were in too many people’s thoughts.
And why should they have been? After all, everything seemed well with the world that day. Even a lengthening injury list couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm on an afternoon when the French were conquered, the pool was topped and the All Blacks were avoided.
A week later, though, and the mood had changed. All of a sudden the squad looked thin, the need for a rebuild was urgent and hopes of a first appearance in a World Cup semi-final had been dashed.
“At the highest level, you can’t have enough depth in your squad,” Joe Schmidt subsequently said. Fifteen months later, he has that depth, and when he sits down to pick his team over the coming week, it is likely that Sean O’Brien, Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony will be on the bench rather than on the starting XV.
Deep down, all six coaches heading into this tournament will have a fair idea of what their team will be for next weekend’s opening matches, and going on the thought processes he has used in the past, Schmidt, I feel, will select the guys who delivered for him in November.
So something that may have sounded scarcely plausible back at that World Cup, and even now seems a little surprising, will probably become a reality later this week, as Stander and Van der Flier appear set to be preferred to O’Mahony and O’Brien in the back-row, while Donnacha Ryan may get the nod ahead of Henderson in the second row.
That final decision will raise some eyebrows, because Henderson is a wonderful, athletic player: a superb ball carrier and great tackler.
However in an Ulster team that is lacking confidence this season, he has not been able to impose himself whereas Ryan is a man in form, someone who has consistently impressed over the last 12 months, benefiting largely from two things.
Firstly, after two horrendous injury-plagued years, he has had a clean bill of health. Secondly, he has settled into one position, after years when he was betwixt and between, seen by some coaches as a flanker, by others as a lock.
Sometimes versatility can be a curse for a player and now that he has found his preferred position, he is thriving.
Henderson is now the one switching positions, and while the intricacies of lineouts and scrums are issues he can cope with, I still believe Ryan is the one who get the thumbs up from Schmidt. And it’s a chance he deserves too.
While Henderson is the more eye-catching of the two, the guy who makes more line-breaks, swats defenders off, offloads more, the Munster man’s work in the maul, on the fringes of rucks and in the scrum are issues that coaches will be fully aware of when they review the tapes of matches.
A perfect example of his usefulness came earlier this month when Munster played Racing in Paris. Near the end of the first half, the French champions won a line out and made a massive effort to drive Munster backwards.
One problem. Ryan, somehow, had managed to get his body through the maul, showing an unbelievable determination and fight. He held the ball up, forced the scrum for Munster and played a significant part in one of the game’s really big moments – the kind of thing that often goes unnoticed.
That’s the beauty about rugby. Some players make line-breaks, some score tries, some kick the ball between the posts. But others find fulfilment from the physical side of the game. And that’s Ryan.
His actions that day against Racing reminded me of that scene from Living with the Lions, the fly-on-the-wall documentary that followed the tourists around South Africa in 1997.
“There’ll be pain,” Martin Johnson told the players in a huddle before the first Test. “Enjoy it. Enjoy the pain.”
That day in Paris, those words would have resonated with Ryan, because when he made his way through a number of Racing bodies, he knew he’d pick up a few bruises along the way.
What happens in mauls now isn’t as bad as it was in the old days when you’d be punched, your neck would be grabbed and your legs would get stamped on. You can’t do that anymore.
But you still suffer. And some players don’t care. Ryan is one of them.
He isn’t a dirty player at all but he gets serious fulfilment from winning those close encounters, from making tackle after tackle, from cleaning out rucks, from being in the middle of a maul making a nuisance of himself and fighting for every little inch.
These are the moments that can inspire teams and that day in Paris, it certainly had an effect, because the easy option would have been to allow Racing to win their lineout, maul forward, get nice clean ball and fling it out to their backs.
Well, that sort of thing won’t happen against any team facing Donnacha Ryan. He has matured into a really composed player; he used to get frustrated when the team wasn’t playing well, but he has learned to be less hard on himself, which was something I noticed in him earlier in his career when we played together.
Everyone wants someone in their team who can provide the side with big moments – moments that are not that clear to the viewer but are noted by players and coaches.
If Ryan is capable of delivering those, then so are O’Mahony and O’Brien – and yet I don’t see either being picked ahead of Stander or Van der Flier, largely because Schmidt has a tendency to reward players who delivered in the most recent games for him, and also because of his policy of not picking guys whose fitness is an issue.
And that has been the case with O’Brien over the last month. Irrespective of the fact the Carlow man is an outstanding talent, who provides the team with presence and experience, Van der Flier’s performances against the All Blacks in Chicago and the Aussies in Dublin will, I believe, sway Schmidt’s thinking.
Similarly, Stander will edge out O’Mahony, and when you consider that Jack Conan and Tommy O’Donnell are also in the mix, the level of competition for three back-row slots is scarcely believable.
Elsewhere, there isn’t the same depth. If Conor Murray gets injured, he’ll be sorely missed, even if Kieran Marmion or Luke McGrath are capable of doing a decent job.
At out-half, Ireland could do with Johnny Sexton having an injury-free run, because if they are to win a Six Nations title, they need the Leinster No 10 at the control centre.
A real winner, who is undaunted by any challenge, he sets a seriously high standard and is capable of reaching world-class levels when he is on song.
You can say the same about Simon Zebo. Having not always been picked by Schmidt, he is certain to start now, after a period of introspection led to him improving his defensive game and also becoming an even greater threat in attack. Having found real consistency, he also has found the tryline easier to cross.
With Jared Payne out, Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw are equally as certain to start in the centre, leaving two-thirds of the back three combo up for debate.
If fit, Keith Earls will probably be preferred to Andrew Trimble, as I believe Schmidt will continue to stay loyal to Rob Kearney.
Will that team be good enough to beat Scotland? I’ve no doubt about that – even though it is clear that the Scots have improved immeasurably since the last time we were in Edinburgh, two years ago, when a 40-10 victory was as emphatic as the scoreline suggests.
Their backline is much more of a threat now than it was then, while the confidence they will have gained from a successful November, when they beat Argentina and only narrowly lost to Australia, is significant.
That said, Ireland’s November was much better, which is why I believe they’re capable of not just winning next Saturday, but also claiming the title.
While confident of that, I’d be surprised if a Grand Slam came with it. No game – even Italy – is easy in this tournament, as each of the Six Nations sides defeated teams from the Rugby Championship in November, highlighting the improved depth in northern hemisphere rugby.
It’ll take a good side, then, to win this tournament.
And that, I believe, will be Ireland.