Friday 23 August 2019

November continues to deliver depth for Schmidt but he must make sure all his players stay at home

Joe Schmidt Photo: PA
Joe Schmidt Photo: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

November time in the Joe Schmidt era has been a fairly positive experience. It started with a 40-9 win over Samoa in 2013, and yesterday's success against Argentina in the Aviva brought us to 10 wins from 13 games, including the solitary away fixture, against the All Blacks in Chicago last year.

The nuts and bolts of that are as follows: six out of nine against Tier 1 and four from four against Tier 2. The bits added on at this point are all about the World Cup - what kind of squad will Schmidt be taking back to Japan in 2019?

Two of his latest additions - Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell - are working out very well, which is a bonus given the coach's projections for that group began to take more shape last summer when he was totting up the pluses and minuses from Ireland's tour to the US and Japan. The latter column was bare enough. In the former he had pencilled in for 2019 the names of Jacob Stockdale, Jack Conan, Dan Leavy and James Ryan.

Leavy's injury has cost him valuable game-time this month - and footage for the coach - but with the other three it has been all about confirmation.

The best bit about Stockdale is that he seems to have a knack for dealing with whatever is put in front of him. So his debut for Ulster two seasons ago didn't faze him, and from the moment he announced himself at Test level, with a try on his debut against the Eagles, he has looked more than capable. It continued against South Africa: another try, another big game. Then yesterday he repeated the trick, getting the man of the match award in the bargain.

His competition will feature Darren Sweetnam, another fella who would be at home in any sport involving a ball. He was barely on the field against South Africa when he had to gather a cross-kick from Joey Carbery. It was a bouncing ball. Straight off the bench, we were braced for a spill. Sure hands from Sweetnam led to a contender for try of the season from Stockdale.

Conan (25) was further down the road than the Ulster wing when Ireland flew to the US in June, and by the time he arrived back in Dublin three weeks later Schmidt didn't just have an alternative to Jamie Heaslip, rather a tight selection issue at number eight. His capacity to pick off tries was illustrated again against Fiji, proving that he has the gas to turn long-range opportunities into points just as effectively as snipes from close range.

Ryan had to wait until yesterday before making a start. Three runs off the bench seems like a circuitous route given his fast-tracked career path. It was interesting then to hear captain Rory Best talking him up in the preamble to the Pumas game.

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This is unique: captain talks about the leadership expected from a 21-year-old who started the day with three international caps and just five appearances for his province. Going off early yesterday will wreck Ryan's head, for he was missed badly. Devin Toner was the wrong man for the game that had developed by that stage.

Ryan's selection alongside Iain Henderson had looked like a preview of the starting second-row combination in 2019. The others in that forward pack frame are Cian Healy (30), Jack McGrath (28) - who needs to rewind his game to the end of last season - Niall Scannell (25; due back early in the new year), John Ryan (29), Andrew Porter (21), Ultan Dillane (24), Toner (31), Peter O'Mahony (28), CJ Stander (27), Josh van der Flier (24), Rhys Ruddock (27) and Sean O'Brien (30).

Given O'Brien's injury record - he got through a mountain of work yesterday - and O'Mahony's low regard for his own safety, Schmidt will want to spread the load as much as possible en route to Japan. The window for that kind of behaviour is not great. The Six Nations demands your best team for five weeks out of seven, though it makes sense for team morale and player management if changes can be made when the selection call is that tight.

That's why it's so important for Team Ireland that the provinces are competitive. In a week when Marty Moore announced he would be coming back to the island in the summer, over in Glasgow they are fretting that Jonny Gray is about to follow his brother Richie, and Finn Russell, out of the jurisdiction. Building a squad to compete in the short and medium term is a battle. Doing it when your talent is overseas is that much harder. At a minimum Ireland need to hold what they have.

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