Saturday 24 September 2016

World Cup dilemma looms for Schmidt

Ireland coach faces plenty of selection headaches to narrow down his options for autumn showpiece

Published 13/05/2015 | 02:30

For Joe Schmidt, the process of making-up of Ireland’s World Cup squad has already begun (Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE)
For Joe Schmidt, the process of making-up of Ireland’s World Cup squad has already begun (Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE)
Joe Schmidt

The make-up of Ireland's World Cup squad is set to destroy plenty of perfectly good bar-mats over the next couple of months as fans around the country pick the 31 players they'd bring to England and Wales.

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For Joe Schmidt, the process has already begun and over the coming days he'll make his first move by inviting around 50 players to pre-season training that commences at the end of next month.

Before then, the coach will have a largely Leinster-based team for the one-off game against the Barbarians tomorrow fortnight and is expected to assemble a strong 'Emerging Ireland' squad for the Tbilisi Cup, with the likes of Donnacha Ryan and Rhys Ruddock likely to be included in order to get valuable game-time as they look to prove their fitness.

Pre-season begins on June 29, with camps scheduled for Galway, Kildare and Cork before things progress to the first warm-up game on August 8 when they face Wales in Cardiff.

It all builds towards August 31, the deadline for submitting the final 31-man squad for the biggest eight weeks of Schmidt's time in charge.

As a two-time Six Nations-winning coach, one would imagine most would put their trust in the former Leinster supremo to get it right, but the Kiwi normally names as many players as possible in his squads and paring numbers down to the required amount will be a challenging process.

Some of those decisions will have already been made, but while those picking squads in the pubs and online forums of Ireland can just choose their favourite players, the New Zealand has much to consider before finalising his chosen ones and, being as thorough as he is, there is no doubt he'll come at it from every angle before deciding.

How the squad will look

The first exercise for Schmidt will be establishing the breakdown of forwards and backs in his squad.

In 2011, when allowed 30 players, Declan Kidney opted for a split of 16 forwards and 14 backs and Schmidt is likely to add one prop to that mix, making it a 17/14 divide.

The accepted wisdom is that each squad will have three players each for the specialist positions of hooker and scrum-half, while a prop who can cover both sides of the scrum like Leinster's Michael Bent is likely to take the total number of props to seven.

That leaves 18 slots for the other 11 positions, meaning positional versatility will be a key asset for those outside of the front-liners trying to make the plane.

The chosen ones

Despite using a grand total of 56 players over the course of his two seasons in charge, Schmidt's selections have been consistent across his time in charge with a hierarchy in most positions.

The coach has kept change to a minimum during competitive windows and for all the talk of competition through training has stuck with those who have earned his trust over his two years.

While he has been aiming to win each tournament in its own right, the coach has always had the World Cup at the back of his mind and over the course of his tenure has built a winning team on consistent selection.

Thus, barring an incredible drop-off in form in the autumn or an ill-timed injury, the likes of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Devin Toner, Peter O'Mahony, Jamie Heaslip and captain Paul O'Connell are all pencilled in, along with the only man to start every one of Schmidt's games in charge; Mike Ross.

The front-row options are pretty established with starting and bench options remaining constant across the course of the campaign, while the likes of Iain Henderson and Eoin Reddan are trusted reserve options and will certainly make the trip.

Judgment calls

There are three lines of Schmidt's squad that look to be the most keenly contested, with the back three, second-row and back-row the toughest to call.

The make-up of the centres is another area of contention, with a knock-on effect coming from the versatility of those picked to cover out-half and wing for the tournament.

Rob Kearney has been a dependable figure in the No 15 jersey throughout Schmidt's time in charge, while Tommy Bowe has always been selected when fit.

When he wasn't, Andrew Trimble swept the boards for player of the year and won a Six Nations.

No jersey has changed hands as often as the No 11 shirt, with Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Simon Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald all impressing at various stages of Schmidt's time in charge.

Felix Jones was trusted with the No 23 spot for the Six Nations, a role McFadden held a year previous, while Keith Earls spent time in camp during the tournament win and has impressed for Munster since his return to fitness.

In the second-row, there is an established match-day triumvirate of Toner, O'Connell and Henderson but the Ulster man's form on the blindside could cause a shake-up, particularly with Ryan back fit and Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy in form.

Henderson and Ryan's ability to cover two positions will be attractive to Schmidt, but will put the squeeze on the likes of Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O'Donnell and Dominic Ryan in the battle for back-row places.

Squeezed middle

The fate of the back-three contenders could come down to the make-up of Schmidt's midfield options, with Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne established front-liners and Gordon D'Arcy and Darren Cave vying for the back-up position.

Ian Madigan's ability to cover a host of positions should allow the coach to select three fly-halves along with Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson, meaning the middle will be squeezed and the ability of Earls, Fitzgerald and McFadden to play in the centre could prove crucial in their head-to-heads with the likes of Zebo, Dave Kearney and the in-form Craig Gilroy.

Schmidt must decide if bringing two specialist full-backs in Kearney and Jones is worth the space it takes up, but he is a huge fan of the Munster man's leadership qualities, while the ability to cover the backfield with left- and right-footed kickers makes up part of his deliberations.

It looks like being a choice between Cave and the vastly experienced D'Arcy and he may look to go for the veteran with Henshaw and one of the outside backs covering Payne at outside centre.

The other area likely to be squeezed is the back-row where Chris Henry has returned as strong as ever to add to a healthy headache for the Ireland coach.

He is likely to trust Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien to cover Jamie Heaslip which could cost Murphy his place, while O'Donnell could also miss out at the expense of Ruddock and Henry with Henderson and Ryan adding to the options.

Fitness permitting

There's a major caveat around Ryan's availability given he has just returned from a long lay-off and the Tipperary native has never had to chance to learn Schmidt's ways.

Trimble's season has been wrecked by a foot injury and he needs to get back on the pitch before Schmidt can think about including him, while Nathan White looked certain to be a key figure in the Six Nations campaign before a knee injury ruined his hopes of playing for his adopted country.

Ryan and broken arm victim Ruddock could use the Emerging Ireland games against Georgia, Uruguay and Emerging Italy to prove they've overcome their problems, even if it will limit their break before joining up again for pre-season.

Cian Healy's operation on a neck injury is the latest concern over a player who has had a stop-start campaign and will be a worry going into pre-season, while McFadden, Sean Cronin, Fitzgerald and Marty Moore all had end-of-season operations on troublesome areas and it is hoped they'll have recovered in time.

The final reckoning

Fitness and form will, of course, play a part in Schmidt's selection but the process of eliminating enough players to reach the magic 31 is not an easy process.

It is clear from a look at the names that might miss out that some big players are going to need to impress over the next couple of weeks before turning up to pre-season training ready for the fight of their lives.

There is always room for the emergence of a new star such as Conor Murray before the 2011 World Cup, while David Wallace's terrible misfortune in the warm-up game against England that year demonstrates that anything can happen to a front-liner.

The window to impress is narrowing, however, and Schmidt will have a fair idea of what he wants to see from certain players.

Now is the time for them to push their case to avoid missing the big show next autumn.

Irish Independent

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