Saturday 27 May 2017

Brendan Fanning: Schmidt's selection leaves Ireland stars wondering how they can get back ahead of their rivals

Craig Gilroy (Ieft), Iain Henderson (centre) and Peter O'Mahony (right)
Craig Gilroy (Ieft), Iain Henderson (centre) and Peter O'Mahony (right)
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It’s reasonable to guess that when Craig Gilroy was strolling back to the changing room in Stadio Olimpico last month he reckoned he might be getting a look-in again soon enough to the Ireland match day squad.

Three tries in just over half an hour is an extraordinary return, even allowing for the circumstances: arriving fresh to a party where the other guests are tired and emotional.

But it’s never that simple. Why for example was he not there in the first place? And when he had some more time to think about it he’d have seen that the green number 23 shirt in this Championship has been handed around more than any other. At least Andrew Trimble was out of the frame, but Tommy Bowe was still lingering in the background.

Then there was Andrew Conway to consider. The only uncapped player in the 17 backs named last week to cover the remaining two rounds of the campaign, Cardiff, against a put-upon Welsh side, was neither the time nor the place.

And in those circumstances – the business end of the Championship – Schmidt went for Bowe on the bench as the only change in his match-day 23. In Ireland’s back-to-back Six Nations title wins in 2014 and 2015 Schmidt managed to keep change to a minimum. The restoration of Bowe, in the coach’s head, is as near to that as he can get.   

But how close was Jared Payne to unseating Garry Ringrose? Close enough given how highly Schmidt rates him. The coach however is a big fan of players training fully in the week of a game, and not being fit to do so on Monday after his slog in the bog of Kingspan last weekend didn’t help. That Ulster win over Treviso was Payne’s second run-out, and first start, since suffering that horrible kidney injury against Australia in November.

So Ringrose continues, and the selection decision is batted back until next week and the build-up to the England game, by which stage Payne will likely have got another game under his belt for Ulster – against Zebre on Saturday.

Given Ringrose’s frame, and the amount of weight it carries, there were concerns about the durability of the Leinster centre when he was starting this campaign, yet he is the only back to see out 80 minutes in each of the three games so far.

In the pack the only issue ongoing is how to divide game time between Jack McGrath and Cian Healy. The former felt his birthday had been taken off the calendar when Healy was popped in ahead of him to start against Italy. That Schmidt has resisted the urge to do the same again doesn’t mean it’s off the table for the England game in 10 days.

Iain Henderson will be hoping his contest with Donnacha Ryan hasn’t taken on such rigid battle lines that the bench is the best he can hope for against England. But, strangely enough, having been shunted into the 24th man slot for the opening game of the campaign, Ryan now looks like a fixture called off only by injury.

Peter O’Mahony is in the same boat, which was unthinkable before the World Cup slowed him down. It’s a measure of Schmidt’s riches that he can leave a man of that value out of the starting side. And it’s a bonus for the coach that he can start the same runners and riders.

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