Sunday 25 February 2018

Neil Francis: Schmidt's back to the wall when it comes to some key positions

Filling the boots of Healy and O'Driscoll is a difficult task

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during an open training session
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during an open training session
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

We get to find out how good a coach Joe Schmidt really is next Saturday. South Africa did well to beat New Zealand a few weeks ago and will be bubbling up nicely with what looks like an exceptional roster. All their key players are fit and playing well and because of their depth, unfortunately under pressure from the guy behind them.

Schmidt's executive - 8, 9, 10 and 15 - are all fit and playing well. Rob Kearney looked very sharp before his back started acting up and it looks like he will be fit. Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are all in combustible form. Outside of your decision makers the most important personnel in your XV are 3 and 13. Whatever about formulating a game plan to beat the ultra-physical Springboks, for once in Schmidt's coaching career in Ireland he has to pick players in a series when he knows they are not good enough.

In a perfect world, Cian Healy would be fit and ready to play. This is the season when a decision had to be made on the tighthead spot anyway and I am guessing that Schmidt, or maybe John Plumtree if he had stayed, would have made a significant move.

Most coaches want to pick their best players in their best positions from the start. Having quality on the bench is a luxury. All good props can last 80 minutes. Replacing them with 10 or 15 to go doesn't really add a huge amount, and for the replacement quite often the match is over before he gets up to the pace of the game, so start your best players. Healy is the best loosehead in the northern hemisphere. I'm not wearing green goggles, it's a fact. Can anyone name the second best loosehead in the northern hemisphere? Pat yourself on the back if you said Jack McGrath. Go to the dunce's corner if you spouted on about Corbisiero or Domingo or, God forbid, Vunipola.

I don't place much store in man of the match awards for players but when a loosehead prop wins them on a regular basis over the course of a season, well then he must be doing something right in one person's estimation. McGrath is a monumental proposition. Quite apart from his primary roles he is a regular try scorer, a thundering carrier and a conscientious tackler. He is real quality.

In Ireland's fantastic conclusion to last year's Six Nations, the contribution of McGrath and Iain Henderson from the bench was what made the difference. The pair of them closed the game out for Ireland. The question has to be asked why does McGrath only spend 10 or 15 minutes on the pitch?

I scrummaged behind Peter Clohessy as a tighthead and remember asking him about his move to loosehead. All I got was a look of disdain as he took another drag from a borrowed Marlboro. Props invent difficulties when it comes to changing sides but the bottom line is if you are good enough and strong enough the transition will be a doddle.

People will point to the difficulty McGrath had a few years ago against Ospreys when he came on as a second-half replacement but that wouldn't be a factor now.

Back to the real world and Healy is out, and even at this stage unlikely to figure in this season's Six Nations. Mike Ross, we are told, has a groin injury. It's hard to gauge. You know from experience that some of the guff about the real extent of a player's injury ranges from white lies to enormous big porkies. Hard to know whether Ross is in trouble, but from the way Greg Feek was bigging up Nathan White last week, it looks like Ireland will have a new tighthead against South Africa. White looks like he was poured into his jersey and somebody forgot to say 'stop.' White's BMI seems to have got bigger since Leinster let him away to Connacht and frankly I couldn't believe that Ireland were in this situation again. There is no question that he is a better scrummager than Michael Bent but most people reading this could point to their maternal grandmother and say that she could stick a scrum down on the tight side better.

As we prepared ourselves for Whites introduction the scrummaging gods looked at the inequity of the whole thing and clicked their fingers. White tears a tendon in his upper arm, a curious injury, and he is out for the November series and most likely the Six Nations too. I really do think it was a shoddy call. If White was any good why did Leinster let him go? Putting in some half decent performances for Connacht in the Pro 12 is one thing. Stepping up to the plate against a fearsome Boks side is entirely another matter .

Jamie Hagan has paid dearly for his move to London Irish .The native Dubliner has deficiencies in his game and in truth they probably won't get ironed out in London Irish. Staying in Leinster with less opportunity for first team appearances might have been a better course of action. He lacks accuracy in many things he does: not a great carrier, not a great tackler, gives away too many dumb penalties. These are all fixable. The one thing he can do though is stick a scrum on the tighthead side. He is phenomenally powerful. He is Irish too which should be a factor. Stephen Archer is a better player than White as well and even at this stage of his career so is Tadhg Furlong. It nearly came to this but hopefully Marty Moore will be fit and ready to play by the time the Six Nations starts and the White conundrum won't rear its pudgy head again.

Ever since they un-nailed BOD from the cross this moment was coming and six months later I am no closer than Joe Schmidt is to picking who his outside-centre will be either for the Guinness series, the Six Nations or, critically, the French game in October 2015.

Whoever it is won't be good enough. For Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne the only time they realise that they have a reputation is when they are not living up to it. The two of them are converted fullbacks, both swayed by the move in the certain knowledge that O'Driscoll's mortality would dawn a season or two out from that change, both also realising that Rob Kearney and Felix Jones were ahead of them in the pecking order for the 15 jersey.

There is not a compelling case to pick either. Both are good defensively but in any side coached by Joe Schmidt, if you don't make your tackles you have the life expectancy of a night watchman in a Hollywood horror movie.

Making your tackles and big hits is one thing, being intelligent and knowing who and where to hit is another. Offensively I haven't seen anything from either that would convince me that they are ready to assume the responsibility of the most important attacking jersey in the three-quarter line. I suspect that Schmidt would sell his soul to the devil or Mark McCafferty for a one-year guaranteed injury-free spell for Luke Fitzgerald. If Fitzgerald stays injury-free until January he is a shoo-in for the 13 jersey.

I don't think D'Arcy will be moved out and so it will be between Payne and Henshaw for the start. I would plump for Henshaw and we will know all we need to know after 80 minutes against the Boks.

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