Frustrated Joe Schmidt rejects conservative label
‘I’ve seen a lot of young players really hampered by being thrust into an environment they’re not ready for’
After he had named his team, the first question Joe Schmidt was asked at yesterday's press conference was why he had not heeded calls from the outside to select Jared Payne at full-back.
"I don't know what calls there were on the outside," he replied bluntly.
Over the course of the next half an hour, it became abundantly clear that the Ireland coach is fully aware at the level of debate there has been about his team selections and the criticism he is coming in for as a result of a perceived conservatism.
The New Zealander was asked about all of his marginal calls: the decision to drop Stuart McCloskey, to include Fergus McFadden on the bench, to switch his replacement hookers and pick Ian Madigan ahead of Paddy Jackson.
To each issue, he gave a clear, rational and thorough explanation. You may not agree with him, but you can't doubt that the head coach takes these decisions seriously.
Yet there is a lingering sense that, in prioritising a first win of 2016 over the chance to have a look at even more fresh faces, Schmidt has missed a trick when it comes to long-term planning.
What, you wonder, will he learn about his two veteran tighthead props that he doesn't already know? And is McFadden's versatility and knowledge of the coach's ways enough to merit a call ahead of the potentially more impactful alternatives?
After a World Cup exit that was partly blamed on a lack of cover for Johnny Sexton, Madigan is again on the bench, while Jackson is back in Belfast licking his wounds.
It is the beginning of a new four-year World Cup cycle and the dream of a third title in a row is gone, but the team that takes to the Aviva Stadium pitch tomorrow will have an average age of 29.1 years, and 601 caps between them.
Yet, Schmidt argues that he has invested heavily in the development of new talent since he came on board.
"The age profile is also a stacked in the realm of few enough players that there are enough young players coming through that we will blood guys in," he said.
"In my two and a half years we've used 66 players; 21 of them were uncapped. Sometimes I get confused about what else you need to build into developing players.
"I think we really experimented in the last game. To put two guys into their Test match debuts at Twickenham away against a very settled and strong English side, and to have another make his debut off the bench. . .
"I don't think that's something that's overly conservative, it's giving opportunity and at the same time you're always looking for balance.
"I've been coaching professionally now for 15 years and I've seen a lot of young players really hampered by being thrust into an environment they are not ready for.
"They can lose their confidence and sometimes they don't quite come back in the same way. So it's just about getting to know the players and trying to have a balance of opportunity and, at the same time, experience."
Although he publicly stated that a top-three finish would be a satisfactory return, Schmidt was targeting the three-in-a-row at the outset of this tournament and expressed his "frustration and disappointment" with how it has gone.
Amid all the allegations of conservatism, he has capped CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, McCloskey and Ultan Dillane, but the idea of giving youth it's fling in a drastic way is not on the agenda.
After they face Italy and Scotland, Ireland's next mission will be to South Africa for three Tests in June, and they face New Zealand twice and Australia in November.
"In the context of what we've got coming up in 2016, there's still so much to play for that it's hard not to be enthusiastic and energised by it and that's the next two weeks and beyond," Schmidt said.
"This has been our most challenging Championship in trying to put band-aids on things a little bit, in trying to put things back together, and having guys moving in and out of the team has made it more difficult.
"We've had the luxury of really good continuity through the last two Championships and you saw the benefit of that.
"The two teams that are playing this weekend with the chance of potentially putting themselves in pole position - an almost unbeatable position if England win - are the teams that have had super continuity right the way through and have had super continuity in the first place."
"For us, we've got a good squad to choose from, but we've also had quite a few disruptions.
"If we can manage to get these last two wins, it will be the right sort of platform for us to take on some of the huge challenges.
"Watching a little bit of Super Rugby, the South Africans haven't gotten any smaller or less abrasive. We're going to have to go there as fully loaded as we can.
"I'd stay in touch with a lot of the players. Iain Henderson is maybe a couple of weeks away. Tommy Bowe is on his way back. Peter O'Mahony will be back before the end of the season. And Sean O'Brien.
"The challenge for these guys this weekend and next is to say, 'well they're names outside the squad. I want to be in the squad. I want to grab the jersey'.
"Hopefully, we see evidence of that on Saturday."
That's where Schmidt sees tomorrow's engagement against Italy. For all that a top-half finish is desirable, just getting the taste of winning in a green jersey would be a help in restoring confidence and lifting the mood.
This is the team that the coach believes is most capable of securing that result.
"It would be great to give some of the youth an opportunity this weekend. But, we've tried to do that throughout the tournament in different games and give them some experience with some experience around them," he said.
"If that balance isn't there, then it may be that Kieran Marmion comes on this weekend and he has Johnny there.
"I just feel that's a situation that makes Kieran Marmion's job a bit easier in his championship debut, so there are aspects of it that we're just trying to balance, I guess.
"We have to get a win. That's the bottom line. We're judged on our results and we judge ourselves on performance but if our performance is good enough then you've got to be able to get the result at the end of it."
As is his right, Schmidt refuses to play to the gallery. But he could do with that result to stem the growing disquiet at his selections outside the bubble at Carton House.
Schmidt on . . .
Playing Payne at No 15
"We haven't trained with Jared at 15 so it would be a big step for us to suddenly change that. What we lack with Jared not in the midfield has been pretty evident to us, particularly on the edge with his defensive work. He did a fantastic job against France, so we are looking for him to again control our defensive line in the frontline. If we take him out of there it's something else we have to try to find coverage for."
"Paddy and I have had a pretty open dialogue over the last two years. . . Johnny Sexton hasn't missed a kick at goal, Ian Madigan has a phenomenal strike rate, and that's one of the aspects. Another aspect is Ian's versatility as opposed to Paddy who is mostly a 10. He's a super young player and I think he will grow into a player that will accumulate a number of caps."
McCloskey as a sub
"We want to keep investing in Stuart for sure, and we did consider him there. But that has a concertina effect, if you use him then you've got to push someone else to another position to accommodate somebody else coming in. With the bench, we try to have as little disruption as possible when someone comes on as a replacement."