Tuesday 26 September 2017

Comment: Dropping Ringrose would be short-sighted and prove the line about 'Joe Schmidt favourites'

Jared Payne (left), Garry Ringrose (centre) and Rob Kearney (right).
Jared Payne (left), Garry Ringrose (centre) and Rob Kearney (right).
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Down weeks in the Six Nations can be frustrating for fans, forced to cast their eyes away from the gladiatorial arena of international rugby and reacquaint themselves with the provinces, who take a back seat for seven weeks each spring.

This current respite, sandwiched between a win over France and a daunting trip to Cardiff, is as palatable a break as we can get at this time of year.

The reason being: there is acute interest as to how one particular player fares in the Pro12 this weekend.

Now nobody is tuning into the enjoyably partisan BBC coverage of Ulster vs Treviso expecting to see a contest tonight - rather, most viewers will undoubtedly be curious to see if Jared Payne shows enough form and fitness to move back into the Six Nations selection debate.

Tellingly, the Kiwi has been picked at outside centre, the position where he has played almost all of his international career.

The exception was during two tumultuous tests in South Africa last summer, where Payne attacked with verve from fullback, demonstrating a thrust that hasn't always been evident when wearing a 13 jersey.

Given Rob Kearney picked up a slight abductor injury against the French, Payne could move into the team in the last line of defence in a straightforward swap.

However, the Leinster star usually gets his body right in time for Ireland games, and if passed fit, Joe Schmidt may need to go for a lie down to alleviate his pounding selection migraine.

In today's Irish Independent, David Kelly posits that Payne may reclaim the outside centre spot at Garry Ringrose's expense.

Such a decision could possibly be argued in the short-term - Ringrose is still slight for an international centre and Wales have numerous bulldozing ball carrying behemoths - but it would be strikingly shortsighted given Ireland are building towards the 2019 World Cup.

An international coach's job can be a tricky balancing act - win now while simultaneously developing a team for the marquee tournament.

Judging by recent performances, the selection of Ringrose can fulfill both edicts. Removing him now, when his form is strong, could unnecessarily dent his confidence. At 22, he will only get better as we edge nearer to the tournament in Japan, at which time Payne will be turning 34 and Kearney will be 33.

Had Ringrose merely been holding the jersey waiting for Payne to return, such a swap would make sense.

But the Leinster youngster excelled against Australia and after being taught a sharp lesson at Murrayfield, has already shown a vast improvement in areas outside his expertise.

His eye for a gap has been evident since his professional debut, but his defensive reads continue to stymie attacks, even if he doesn't yet have the physique required to routinely halt the hulking superstructures that he shoots out of the line to close down.

Schmidt will also have noticed his superb clearout in the build-up to Conor Murray's crucial try against France. To be regularly selected in a Schmidt side, a player needs to not only know his role inside out - he also has to perform it to perfection.

That aggressive bit of rucking would have pleased the Ireland boss as much as Ringrose's plethora of probing half-breaks.

Many would welcome Payne's inclusion at fullback, while maintaining the current centre partnership, but Kearney, like the Ulster back, has always been selected when fit, and there is no indication that Schmidt will change tact for the Wales game.

Perhaps, he will hedge his bets and include Payne as the 23rd man. His versatility would be a good asset in a bench role and would give Schmidt another week to assess his options before nailing down his first choice backline for the crucial clash with England on St Patrick's weekend.

Get the decision wrong, and the Six Nations is gone for another year. Get it right, and Ireland could capture another title while having a clearer picture of how the attack will look in Japan in two years time.

That is the dilemma facing Schmidt, he has to plan for Friday night and for 30 months from now.

Replacing Ringrose might not benefit the former, but it would definitely damage the latter.

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport