Schmidt insists his 'national team' won't be distracted by provincial loyalties
IRELAND coach Joe Schmidt has launched an impassioned defence of his selection policy in response to Denis Leamy's criticism of the provincial balance of his Six Nations-winning squad last week.
The New Zealander said that provincial loyalty is not a factor when he and his coaching team pick their squad.
Despite the obvious progress made by Ireland since the New Zealander took over last summer as the team won their first title since 2009, the make-up of the match-day squads and the high number of Leinster players selected has been a recurring talking point, particularly in Munster.
Since taking over, Schmidt has capped 21 players from his former club, as well as Jonathan Sexton, who moved from the province to Racing Metro this season.
Nine Ulster players have played for Ireland this season, while five have come from Munster and Robbie Henshaw is the sole Connacht representative.
Writing in the Irish Independent last Friday, former Munster and Ireland No 8 Leamy questioned the decision to pick players who are not necessarily first choice at Leinster ahead of first-teamers at Munster, citing the example of Simon Zebo, Tommy O'Donnell and Donnacha Ryan as players who would be worthy of a place on the bench at least.
Yesterday, Schmidt held a post-Championship press conference where he was asked if the focus on the issue and Leamy's comments in particular had surprised or disappointed him.
"For me, I select Irish players," he replied. "If people want to differentiate, if people want to divide that provincially, that's their prerogative. But, as a group, we're just trying to select the Irish national team and I think if people are going to be distracted by provincial loyalties, then that is something that is certainly not happening within the group.
"I think there has been a super unity within the squad. It is probably always disappointing to get criticised. I can totally understand the perception.
"But, what I can totally guarantee is that we have all the stats, we watch all the games and we try to do as much homework as we possibly can.
"We keep up the dialogue with the players, we try and make sure that they are kept aware of what we are looking for, because we are trying to combine a group in a very short time, so people have to be already on the right page, ideally."