Joe Schmidt lays cards on table with surprise first Test selection
Coach keeps players on toes as he faces 'daunting' task head on
THAT life under Joe Schmidt is going to be pretty interesting became clear the moment he walked into the drawing room at Carton House flanked by Jamie Heaslip and Jack McGrath.
He then pulled the carpet out from under his captain for the weekend by announcing that Paul O'Connell would be skipper from the second Test onwards, before revealing a team that nobody had predicted beforehand.
The New Zealander has been in the Ireland job for five months – before officially taking over, he spent a couple of weeks around the squad in the United States and Canada. Yesterday was the first time he put his neck on the line and made the kind of calls that will define his tenure.
There is plenty of good will behind Schmidt – his successes at Leinster have earned him some breathing time at the top.
He will never have had his team selections as heavily scrutinised at club level, though, even if they were always closely guarded and hard to predict.
By leaving Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and O'Connell on the bench, he sent a message that even his best players must be fully up to training if they want to play.
He dismissed any idea that he was keeping his powder dry for Australia and New Zealand by making the calls that he did.
"This is the starting XV," he said. "Everyone else's challenge is to usurp someone for one of those positions."
So what does this first team announcement tell us about how the Schmidt era will work?
1. SCHMIDT TRUSTS HIS LEINSTER TROOPS IMPLICITLY
It is not quite Warren Gatland going for 14 Ospreys in his first game as Wales coach, but of the 23 players selected by Schmidt, 15 play for his former club with nine handed starting jerseys.
When Gatland selected 10 Welshmen for the Lions' third Test in June he was castigated in these parts, but it is hard to argue that the Leinster men don't deserve their selections, and their ability to implement Schmidt's way of playing will be crucial.
There are concerns behind the scrum, where Fergus McFadden, Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney have been part of a backline who have failed to fire under their new provincial coach Matt O'Connor this season – admittedly talismanic No 13 O'Driscoll has mostly been on the sidelines.
Ahead of the clash with Australia, Schmidt will want his former charges – and Mike McCarthy, who he signed from Connacht before assuming the international job – to rekindle their relationship from last year.
They know what he wants implicitly and he'll hope that they can steer their team-mates in the right direction, while the appointment of O'Connell as captain will help to off-set any accusations of bias.
2. EVOLUTION TRUMPS REVOLUTION
Schmidt has close to a full deck to choose from, with Johnny Sexton, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Craig Gilroy the main absentees.
It has been a while since Ireland could call on so many front-liners, and there are plenty of tried and tested characters in key positions.
It means that the starting XV that takes the field has an average age of 28, with an average of 35 caps each, with youth and experience mixing nicely. He has seven Lions in his starting team and three more on the bench.
There will be criticism that the big chance to inject new life was for Luke Marshall to get the nod ahead of D'Arcy to partner O'Driscoll after his impressive start to the season, but while he was close, Schmidt admitted that being pressed into selecting Paddy Jackson meant that the out-half's fellow Ulsterman missed out.
"He's definitely a raw talent and he's developing well. "I still think there's some experience that needs to be added to that and you get that experience by continuing to play at Heineken Cup level and then getting opportunities at Test level," he said.
"For Luke it was a disadvantage a little bit that Paddy was there, not that that's any disrespect to Paddy at all, it just meant that we could put that bit of experience with Conor and Gordon either side of Paddy just to make that as comfortable rather than have two young guys there together."
3. IMPACT IS TO BE TREASURED
So often, the Ireland bench was a place to wrap up for, as replacements were often used only when a starter was injured, but tomorrow there will be impact a-plenty for the new coach to call on.
Whether it is O'Connell and Eoin Reddan bringing experience to the situation, Ian Madigan and Dave Kearney injecting some verve behind the scrum or Sean O'Brien, Sean Cronin and Cian Healy some raw power, Schmidt has named impressive back-up to call on.
In particular, Ireland's form player O'Brien will be crucial, and Peter O'Mahony is looking forward to seeing him.
"Seany probably isn't in the side because he hasn't trained all week, but he is the ultimate impact player over the last 30 or 40 minutes or whenever he comes on," he said. "We're going to need that bench to have an impact."
4. MIXING IT UP IS KEEPING PLAYERS ON THEIR TOES
It hasn't been firsts versus seconds in Maynooth over the past 10 days – Schmidt has been mixing and matching at training and keeping the players guessing as a result.
Taking the attacking team under his own tutelage, with Les Kiss managing the defensive side, he has introduced competitive mini-games on the pitch where the hierarchy appears to have gone out the window. The feedback from the players has been good.
5. THE EXCITEMENT IS
BACK IN IRISH RUGBY
Schmidt's ascension to the Irish throne has brought with it a renewal of enthusiasm for the national team and, while he conceded the expectation would bring with it pressure, it was also refreshing to hear the players think big all week and not being afraid to talk up their hopes for Ireland over the coming year. Yesterday's team announcement was heaving with press, while more than 44,000 tickets have been sold for tomorrow's clash with Samoa and Australia and New Zealand have sold out.
Irish soccer has secured its box-office dream team and it looks like the IRFU's decision to appoint the former Leinster coach is having the desired impact.
"I'd like to think we can develop a product that people really enjoy attaching to and if you get that emotional attachment I think that the team get driven forward," Schmidt said.
"I think the spectators enjoy the experience that much more. That's the challenge that the team have. It's a challenge for me and it's a little bit daunting, to be honest, because of that expectation but I'm excited by it. Just like a player, you challenge yourself to take expectations and bring them to fruition.
"That's a challenge and I'd love to see it happen immediately but I'm also a realist and it may take a little while."