Tony Ward: Even a handsome victory would fail to make up for this disappointing selection
It’s undoubtedly an opportunity missed to try Payne at fullback and continue with McCloskey in midfield
Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30
For the first time since Joe Schmidt took up the reins as head coach I admit to a feeling of disappointment at the announcement of his chosen 23 for duty. The Italian job is no different now than when the Azzuri first expanded the Five Nations to Six at the turn of the millennium.
They invariably deliver big performances early in the tournament and aim for one scalp in any given year. It is a low level of aspiration but, and with all due respect to Sergio Parisse, probably appropriate to collective ability at this point in time.
If we can't beat Italy on our own patch with measured change then what chance have we going forward? It is not out of disrespect but today represents an opportunity lost. Yes, of course, it is imperative that we register a win to 'get back on the horse' and all that cliched trollop we hear from modern-day players and management ad infinitum.
I am disappointed in Joe because this smacks of an ultra-conservative selection with one obvious goal in mind; winning. I am disappointed because the same objective could have been achieved anyway.
By common consensus the three new caps at Twickenham, Stuart McCloskey and Josh Van Der Flier from the start and Ultan Dillane off the bench, acquitted themselves brilliantly in their maiden journey at this level.
The coach rightly acknowledged as much in the immediate aftermath yet less than a fortnight on, and with Jared Payne back in contention, Van Der Flier alone is deemed worthy of a start. It goes without saying that were Sean O'Brien available the Leinster replacement flanker would do well to make the bench. Or, more to the point, had O'Brien, Mike McCarthy and Payne been fit for the England game these would be three potential new caps still awaiting that call.
Despite the best efforts to mask the 'sometimes, needs-must' philosophy, the widely-held perception is of an Ireland set-up based on 'if we are stuck and up the Swanee without a paddle' we'll give you a call, otherwise bide your time. It is certainly not a proactive selection despite all the optimistic talk post-RWC 2015.
I was accused by a reader last week of being conservative myself, in so far as the case I outlined in detail for change in midweek didn't match the headline or graphic to the body of the piece on the same day. With respect to the individual involved, I may be accused of many things but conservative I am not. I get what it takes to select and deliver at this level and the pressure that comes with it. It is all too easy to clamour for wholesale change on the basis it won't happen but it can make a great story.
Constructive and coherent selection working towards a more expansive way of playing is, however, a very achievable aspiration and that is why this particular selection disappoints.
For whatever reason the head coach will not move beyond Payne and Robbie Henshaw in the centre when both are available yet all evidence points to Ulster being a much more potent attacking force when Payne is wearing the No 15 for the province. What would it have cost to at least trial that option a level up given that the first-choice full-back, Rob Kearney, is injured and the Italians at home -I repeat with the greatest of respect - marked the ideal opportunity to do that.
The fact that Simon Zebo comes in again as cover for Kearney reasserts the thought that this head coach is not for moving. Payne at full-back, with McCloskey and Henshaw again wearing 12 and 13, would widen the options towards the three-Test series in South Africa in the summer.
Like Schmidt, I believe Zebo is worth his place in the side but on the left wing where he is most comfortable, in the position that comes most natural to him. Zebo and Connacht's Matt Healy (we'll not go there) are the most natural left-sided players beyond Luke Fitzgerald, who is again injured.
Even if Schmidt is clearly not convinced the Payne experiment is worth trying then covering that eventuality would be easy by way of having Zebo as the utility cover on the bench. Change for the sake of change, particularly after losing, is never the way but change with purpose, which this would have been, offers the most constructive way forward.
According to Schmidt, "we can still finish in the top half (of the table) and still give a fair bit of experience to players and I think that is an investment that will hopefully pay dividends down the line". I don't think anyone would dispute that assertion. Blooding new players will pay dividends down the line although given the reluctance to delve a little deeper into emerging talent for the visit of the Italians, just how many more do you think the head coach will throw in against South Africa, New Zealand and Australia before the next Six Nations?
As for finishing in the top half? Count me out of the celebration, or indeed of losing sleep, on that one. Yes, there is a financial ramification as well as World Cup seeding points up for grabs but weighed against feeding into the talent pool and expanding the style, it's no contest.
On the plus side, having Sean Cronin back, plus Dillane and Kieran Marmion on the bench, smacks of potential impact. I also support the view that Paddy Jackson - much like McCloskey - is the first choice in his position or else not part of the 23 at all. My preference would have been with McCloskey to start and Zebo, if not on the left, to fill the utility role in reserve. But we are where we are and either way I expect us to win with a bit to spare.
The Italians come to the Aviva on the back of three successive defeats. At Six Nations, Champions Cup and Pro12 level they represent the weakest link by far. It is a huge problem for Six Nations, EPCR and Pro12 going forward. The hope was, that much like the French when the Four Nations became Five, the Italians would bed in but 16 years on they are still struggling badly.
Despite the significant loss of hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini and scrum-half Edoardo Gori they will come out with all guns blazing. That is a given. They will look to bully us in the scrum and use that long-established rolling maul as the most prudent route to the try line but our forward replacements should see us - unlike in Paris - cope more than adequately over the 80 minutes.
We badly need a win and I believe that could have been achieved anyway if the shackles had been loosened. I fully support the main man in his endeavours but this is an opportunity missed. Ireland by 20.