Wednesday 28 September 2016

Schmidt keeps open mind as he ponders options

Coach insists World Cup places up for grabs at Thomond Park

Published 28/05/2015 | 02:30

Joe Schmidt gives instructions to his players at Thomond Park yesterday
Joe Schmidt gives instructions to his players at Thomond Park yesterday

Joe Schmidt was back where is happiest yesterday: on the pitch, drilling his team ahead of their final game of a successful campaign, against the Barbarians.

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Off-field matters dominated the agenda at the subsequent press conference in the Thomond Park president's suite, with the Ireland coach fielding questions on Matt O'Connor's departure and his own future as he said discussions on a new contract will begin in the weeks to come.

However, the politicking takes a back seat this evening as the Six Nations champions begin the transition from 2014/15 to the World Cup preparations in Limerick.

Shorn of his Munster and Connacht contingent as well as the otherwise engaged Johnny Sexton, Schmidt has named a Leinster/Ulster composite team to take on the invitation side in a game that is struggling to capture the public imagination in the south-west.

There are a few objectives of this questionable exercise for the Ireland coach, who will be praying he comes through the weekend unscathed in terms of injury, particularly as he casts a glance over to Wales and sees Jonathan Davies ruled out of the World Cup.

Reintegrate

The first objective is to ensure all of Ireland's players finish the season in similar condition and at the same time, while it also gives Schmidt a chance to reintegrate the likes of Dave Kearney, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry.

The inclusion of five uncapped players is a nod to the future, in particular the selection of Collie O'Shea at outside-centre and Cian Kelleher on the bench - both only made their first Leinster appearances in the final game of the season against Edinburgh.

Of the new faces, Tadhg Furlong has the most to gain. The New Ross tighthead has been hugely impressive for Leinster this season and has spent plenty of time training with Ireland.

The decision to pick Ian Madigan ahead of Paddy Jackson was put down to the Ulster man's heavy recent workload, but affords the Leinster star a rare chance in his preferred position.

Marshall is given the nod ahead of in-form Ulster team-mate Stuart McCloskey, but Schmidt will cast his eye over the latter and several others when they travel to Georgia to play for Emerging Ireland next month.

While the perception may be that most of the places in Schmidt's World Cup squad are already assigned to an experienced squad with an impressive recent medal haul, the coach insists that the door remains open for those looking to impress.

He will name an extended squad early next month, but doesn't have to finalise his 31-man tournament panel until September.

"It's a good question but I don't know myself, I really don't. We have been tracking, probably thrown down 44 names at the moment," he said.

"We think the 'Emerging' tour will probably throw up another three to six names and that is a challenge for the 'Emerging' tourists; and there might be a couple of guys who get ruled out of that 44 and we might end up with 48 or we might end up with 46 or 50.

"That is the way I prefer it, to keep it quite fluid. We're coming to the end of the season, there is two games left effectively and then there is the games during the Emerging tour and at the end of that we will know who is fit and available."

The big fear is that one of Ireland's front-line players will pull up lame at such a critical stage.

Conor Murray's knee injury is likely to keep him out for six weeks and not threaten his tournament, but as Davies showed, anything can happen.

"Watching Munster play on Saturday and watching Conor go down and then Zeebs (Simon Zebo) go down you start to worry how long-term are those injuries," Schmidt said.

"We know now with both of them are unlikely to affect them in the long term at all. That's how I watch games at the moment, and because of that we'd like to keep it fluid, because we don't want to rule people out that may well be in the picture."

Certainly, the players see this game as one of a limited number of opportunities to impress the coaches before the big show kicks off in the autumn.

"Joe's said that to people in the room, that this is one of the chances. People going on the Georgia tour will have their chance as well," Henry said.

"Joe wants to see you go about the process. That's why the last few years Ireland have done well.

"It's about the next ruck, knowing when you're going to ruck, who you're supposed to target, the dummy line you're supposed to run right. The things that perhaps in the past weren't noticed, he notices.

"So, for you it's about the process and that's how we're approaching it. Jamie's spoken well and prepped us well, so it's just about the process.

"If you focus on yourself and make the game a bit easier for the guy beside you, that's what it's all about.

"There's new combinations and people getting their chances, but I can't see this game being any different.

"The last thing we want is to start playing like the Baa-Baas will play, we want to keep it to our game plan. We know the structures we want to bring, we all work extremely hard for each other and that's hopefully how we're going to get the best out of our team."

So, we can expect a real clash of styles between the structured, highly organised Ireland and the off-the-cuff, traditional Barbarians who added former Leinster second-row Nathan Hines to their bench yesterday.

The result is largely irrelevant as the season comes to a close, but the perfectionist in Schmidt will be striving for a low error count and a performance that allows him go into the brief summer break on a high, with a few new names to consider ahead of the serious business to come.

Verdict: Ireland

IRELAND - R Kearney; D Kearney, C O'Shea, L Marshall, C Gilroy; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, T Furlong; D Toner, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: R Herring, M Bent, M Ross, B Marshall, J Murphy, L McGrath, P Jackson, C Kelleher.

BARBARIANS - Z Kirchner; A Cuthbert, J Rokocoko, W Olivier, D Smith; J Gopperth, R Pienaar; R Tejerizo, D Fourie, A Jones; R Capo Ortega, K Mikautadze; S Jennings (capt), G Vosloo, R Koliniasi Holani. Reps: D Ward, S Taumoepau, M Diaz, N Hines, G Smith, T Cubelli, T Pisi, G Aplon.

Ref - G Garner (RFU)

Ireland v Barbarians,

Thomond Park, Sky Sports 1, 7.45

Irish Independent

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