Saturday 1 November 2014

Tony Ward: Return of O'Connell to keep Ireland pot boiling

Schmidt nurturing fierce competition as he builds Six Nations assault block by block

Published 04/02/2014 | 02:30

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell
Ireland captain Paul O'Connell

We don't want to tempt fate with regards to our Six Nations hopes yet, but even after just one match overseeing his charges in this great competition, there's definitely something about Joe.

It's not that he has waved a magic wand or that he is possessed of any sixth rugby sense, it's just that, with Schmidt calling the shots, you really do feel the team is in good hands.

The New Zealander is his own man and is not afraid to go with his gut instinct. Like all good managers, he has surrounded himself with a back-room staff in whom he trusts and delegates accordingly. It's clear that the players already understand and believe in the system.

The game has changed dramatically at this level, but, with Schmidt at the helm, you feel you are watching a squad in touch with all the latest advancements in every aspect of the sport.

After Sunday's opening victory over the Scots, I found Schmidt's post-match comments – looking ahead to this Saturday's crunch clash against Wales – enlightening.

"Gats (Warren Gatland) has known me for a long time. He's coached against Ireland and he's coached with Ireland, so I think he'll know what to expect."

FORCE

All of which you can take to mean that 'Gats' hasn't any idea what's coming his way – other than the brute force and ultra-competitiveness that's always part of this fixture.

While any coach with genuine championship-winning aspirations will trot out the 'one game at a time' mantra, you can take it as read that when both Kiwi mentors were planning ahead for this campaign, it would have been with three separate blocks in mind.

From an Irish perspective, the Scottish and Welsh games come as one, with the English at Twickenham a stand-alone challenge, leaving the last block of two – France and Italy – as the final hurdle.

Equally, the Welsh management would have set the Italian and Irish games as their opening block, aiming to simply get through the Azzurri challenge before the Dublin showdown with Ireland.

So, what we witnessed in Cardiff was a Welsh team going through the motions and doing what they had to do without ever showing their strongest hand, particularly from numbers 10 to 15.

Ireland also managed to keep tactical exposure to a minimum, aided and abetted by a Scottish game plan as limited on grass as it was on paper. Put simply, for both Gatland and Schmidt, it was a case of mission accomplished with minimal outlay and maximum return.

Gatland, of course, does have the advantage of that extra day to recover and that is significant – just how much, we will know come Saturday.

Normally New Zealand and England would be the only fixtures guaranteed to pack out the Aviva – indeed, Croke Park, too, if it was available – every single time.

But given where Welsh rugby at international level is now at, as they chase a third Six Nations championship in a row, the visit of Wales is a big deal. Expect D4 to be heaving, with the atmosphere as good as it gets and the fans rocking with expectation.

It will be fascinating to see how Schmidt, Les Kiss and John Plumtree utilise their growing resources.

The manner in which Dan Tuohy stepped up to the mark when replacing inspirational skipper Paul O'Connell at the 11th hour was extremely reassuring. Schmidt's stated aim is to produce a squad with two players competing for every position. That mission is already well under way. Tuohy was an immense presence alongside Devin Toner in the second-row.

The pack in the final quarter was made up of: Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Marty Moore; Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy; Tommy O'Donnell, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip.

Add to that Fergus McFadden, Paddy Jackson and Isaac Boss, plus O'Connell and Gordon D'Arcy, on the assumption both are fully recovered from minor illnesses, and it presents the main man with a strong hand from which to pick.

Second-guessing him is already proving a tricky business. Schmidt is a horses-for-courses coach, that much we already know. But on the basis of putting out your strongest 15 on current form, it is difficult to look beyond just one change in personnel to face the Welsh.

If Tuohy is to retain his second-row slot, and on Sunday's evidence he sure doesn't deserve to lose it, then it will be at the expense of his partner from the victory over Scotland, Toner – and not O'Connell.

Contrary to popular opinion, you do change a winning team if you feel you can make it even better.

O'Connell would be the first name on most teams in the world and, as Ronan O'Gara suggested at the weekend, the 25pc his absence took from every Irish player upon his late withdrawal will be restored for the visit of the Welsh.

Schmidt has this Irish squad precisely where he wants it to be. The training paddock in Carton House is boiling with competitiveness, each and every player believing there is a space for him in the match-day 23.

Considering Alex Cuthbert and George North are as big, if not bigger, than the Scottish pairing of Sean Maitland and Sean Lamont, we can expect Andrew Trimble (who did particularly well upon his return) and Dave Kearney to remain in situ assuming Luke Fitzgerald is still out of the equation.

The big call in the back division should be at 12, where the case for D'Arcy's experience (opposite Jamie Roberts) is strong, but given the comfort with which Luke Marshall and Brian O'Driscoll operated makes midfield tinkering difficult. The in-form Ulster centre more than justified his selection.

To leave him out for D'Arcy would be tough, but as we already know Schmidt will not shirk from making that call if he feels it is the right one.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will be at half-back, with tighthead prop and one lock position (to make way for O'Connell's return) the calls set to burn the midnight oil.

Mike Ross should retain his place, but Moore is edging ever closer to earning selection from the start.

At lock it seems to me a straight call between Toner and Tuohy, with little in it, but on the basis of the original selection, the feeling is that Toner and O'Connell will get the nod.

Irish Independent

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