Other Rugby

Monday 28 July 2014

Tony Ward: Felix Jones needs Schmidt to redesign his attacking game after losing way at Munster

Tony Ward

Published 07/06/2014|02:30

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Ireland's Felix Jones during training in Buenos Aires
Ireland's Felix Jones during training in Buenos Aires

Ireland's matches against Argentina, particularly since the game went open, have been as close as it gets to watching paint dry.

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Ever since Lens in '99 there has been no love lost. The Pumas are passionate about their rugby and so are we, but given that both sides are fielding below strength, particularly Argentina, it is an opportunity to reverse the two-Test series defeat in 2007, plus the 34-23 thumping in Buenos Aires in 2000.

I was there in the Estadio Ferro Carril Oeste for the latter match, when we came off second best in the physical battle.

While the hosts are nowhere near as strong this time round, a hostile atmosphere in Estadio Centenario in Resistencia is guaranteed.

And therein lies a huge part of the challenge to a side in which more than half the starting XV has 10 caps or fewer.

It will be revealing to see how young and clearly talented players handle the pressurised involvement in the build-up, and even more importantly how they deliver in the cauldron of Test rugby.

The Autumn internationals will not offer the same window of opportunity as this two-Test series does now.

FINE-TUNING

Come November, Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss will be fine-tuning a squad for the Six Nations defence, but also with one eye on the World Cup to follow.

So, for those on the margins with World Cup aspirations, opportunity knocks in faraway Resistencia and Tucuman City.

To describe this afternoon's meeting as an 'A' international or Wolfhounds game in all but name would be wrong.

The reality lies somewhere in between, although with Rory Best, Mike Ross, Paul O'Connell, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Andrew Trimble in situ, it is advantage Ireland in terms of experience.

Add Jamie Heaslip and Fergus McFadden on the bench and it makes for a lot of seasoned heads wearing green.

In the context of modern-day touring, it is what a June trek of this nature should be all about. End-of-season tours to the Big Three southern hemisphere nations present a different selection dynamic entirely, so I reckon this mix-and-match selection is just about right.

This is a wonderful chance for Schmidt to to gauge up close and personal the attitudes and temperaments of new kids on the block.

That has long been the essence of touring, but in the never-ending need for bums on seats, that opportunity has been minimised.

So, this first Test is different, very different, in that the starting backline does not include a single Leinster player.

It's a mighty long time since an Irish attacking line ran on without a Leinster player in sight.

Both McFadden and Ian Madigan will come on at some stage and my preference would be to see them appear perhaps in the final quarter as a combination in midfield.

While McFadden appears to have resigned himself to a sporadic place on the wing, Madigan should have very definite aspirations to a permanent place one out from Johnny Sexton.

He can still play out-half, which is a bonus, but he also has all the attributes to be a great success as a second playmaker in midfield.

And, while he may not be as powerful physically, I see Noel Reid in a similar vein. His selection, albeit for the touring experience, is again very positive.

For the uncapped trio Robbie Diack, Rodney Ah You and Kieran Marmion, today's match-day involvement is massive in their development.

I particularly like the look of Marmion, whose sniping ability keeps the opposition back-row honest. Fellow half-backs love it, too!

For Darren Cave, this is a great chance alongside his provincial partner Luke Marshall to make a case for the now vacant No 13 shirt.

Likewise, too, for Simon Zebo, who gets the chance to convince the main man that he has the defensive package plus work rate off the ball to add to his many convincing traits going forward.

However, my biggest interest today will be at full-back. At the moment there is no obvious back-up to Rob Kearney, although Craig Gilroy is showing very definite signs in the last line for Ulster.

Felix Jones had really looked the part when breaking through with the Wolfhounds. Schmidt recognises the traits the Munster No 15 brings to the cause, but equally he has to be concerned with the manner in which a highly promising attacking player has lost his way strategically.

I was surprised at his selection ahead of Gilroy for this trip as, despite his relative rawness, the Ulsterman has looked the better proposition.

But this tour gives Schmidt the chance to redesign Jones' potentially good attacking game to the needs of the team and to those around him, particularly his wings.

FRUSTRATING

I have found watching him play for Munster over the past two seasons frustrating in the extreme.

He needs direction and a more structured and controlled positional focus – put simply, he needs to play as a full-back and abandon his tendency to roam into breakdown contact unnecessarily and unproductively.

Jones has the opportunity to re-launch his Test career and I, like Schmidt, believe the potential is there, but his role for Munster has been questionable to say the least.

For Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson (in outstanding form for Ulster of late) and Jordi Murphy, this is their time and opportunity in what is sure to be a torrid atmosphere.

With both teams starting out from scratch it is a difficult one to call, but if ever the principle of weathering the early storm applies, this is it.

Winning Test rugby matters and, of course, that will be the bottom-line objective, but, equally, player development is central to that aim.

With experience in the key areas, take Ireland to follow in England's footsteps from 12 months ago and see off the fledgling Pumas with a little bit to spare.

Irish Independent

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