Sunday 25 March 2018

Ulster renaissance gives Schmidt a major World Cup headache

Paddy Jackson deserves a World Cup bench spot
Paddy Jackson deserves a World Cup bench spot

Donny Mahoney

A strange season for the provincial rugby teams gets stranger by the week. In January, Ulster were hockeyed 60-22 in Toulon.

The result drew a line under a doom-laden season for Ulster. Injuries. Upheaval at management level. Big players leaving. A club who aspired to European aristocracy seemed bound for obsolescence.

So much has changed so fast. It felt like a torch passing when Leinster visited Ravenhill last Friday. Leinster burned themselves out after 10 frenetic minutes, and Ulster toyed with them en route to a 26-10 victory.

Even though they sit in third with two rounds of the Pro 12 to play, there is an inevitability about Ulster hosting, and winning the final, such is their blistering form.

Ulster's resurgence poses genuine conundrums for Joe Schmidt ahead of the World Cup.

By September, one presumes that Leinster's stalwarts will have shaken off the torpor that now weighs down wearers of the blue jersey.

But one wonders if the in-form Ulstermen will get their chance to make a true impression on Schmidt. Iain Henderson's virtues as an impact sub are manifold. But maybe we should discover what he would add to a starting Test XV before locking him into that role?

Paddy Jackson's return to rugby is very timely. His line-break that set up Henderson's try was a sight to behold.

He is a level above Ian Madigan and Keatley as cover for Johnny Sexton, but his presence as back-up would ruffle the settled Six Nations bench that Schmidt repeatedly opted for, including Felix Jones' mysterious role.


Likewise, it seems bizarre that the country's form winger and Pro12 top try scorer Craig Gilroy is nowhere near the Ireland team.

It seems Gilroy's dynamism counts against him when it comes to the Joe show.

The lesson of past Irish World Cup campaigns is stark: pick on reputation against form and defeat is inevitable. Schmidt knows which sticks will be used to beat him should Ireland disappoint in the autumn.

The question is whether he will use them to his advantage.

Irish Independent

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