Saturday 21 July 2018

Tony Ward: I hate the principle of national eligibility but were I in Schmidt's shoes I would do exactly the same

Allowing Bundee Aki to swap the green jersey of Connacht for Ireland makes sense for Saturday’s South Africa Test. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Allowing Bundee Aki to swap the green jersey of Connacht for Ireland makes sense for Saturday’s South Africa Test. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We can all agree that professionalism has taken rugby in this country to another stratosphere. Remember the days when we would huff and puff for an hour before being blown to kingdom come by stronger, technically better, higher-ranked nations in the final quarter?

Thankfully those days are gone and while we might still lose the occasional match of consequence we are seldom found wanting for puff or desire in the final straight.

The game going professional has spawned a generation of talented Irish players with many in that group amongst our best of all time.

We have also been blessed with some astute coaches in that period such as Declan Kidney, Eddie O'Sullivan and Joe Schmidt.

The roles played by Kidney (Grand Slam in 2009) and O'Sullivan (three Triple Crowns in four years between 2004 and 2007) should never be understated.

Schmidt put together back-to-back Six Nations championships (2014 and 2015) in his first years in charge.

While we may not always agree with his decision making, that was no different when O'Sullivan and Kidney were in charge. But Schmidt has taken the Ireland squad to a new level in terms of strength in depth.

It looks like it might finally be enough to make it to a World Cup semi-final and whatever might lie beyond that only time will tell.

The draw for Japan has been good and while we have no right to take anything for granted it looks like the winner of the Ireland/Scotland game in the Pool A opener will finish top.

Win that and a tilt against South Africa in the last eight looks the most likely given that New Zealand will front up to the 'Boks in their Pool B opener.

This means Saturday's meeting in the Aviva is a game of psychological significance and how Schmidt and Allister Coetzee go about their business will be a fascinating battle in itself.

For South Africa, a defeat to Ireland on home soil for the first time in 2016 rankled.

Yet on the back of taking the series that loss paled when compared to their defeat to the Italians on last year's November tour.

Their recent 57-0 thumping at the hands of the Kiwis was the greatest humiliation of all, and that's not forgetting Japan in Brighton two years ago.

It's been a tough time for the Springboks but a one-point loss to the All Blacks and back-to-back draws with the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship indicate that South Africa and the under-fire Coetzee could finally be on the rise again.

This game in the Aviva is now seen as the defining one in the Springbok year. Despite losing to New Zealand by the narrowest of margins in Newlands the physicality and commitment to the tackle and breakdown took us back to the days of old when psychological bullying in the build-up was backed by brutish bullying on the day.

The Springboks will be up for this one in Dublin.

So where to for Schmidt? I remain old school in that I hold firm that almost every Irish selection should be in the here-and-now.

The Japan World Cup remains part of the process but this selection must be about South Africa at the Aviva on November 11 and precious little beyond. With the right preparation the future will look after itself.

As with CJ Stander I hate the principle of national eligibility for Bundee Aki based on a contractual incentive but were I in Schmidt's shoes I would do exactly the same.

With Garry Ringrose still out through injury (shoulder) the former Connacht combination of Aki and Robbie Henshaw, alongside Johnny Sexton, in midfield looks a no-brainer.

The main areas of contention would seem to be the back-three, loosehead, the back-row and the bench.

Given the absence of Jared Payne, the continued exclusion of Tiernan O'Halloran, and even the excitement offered by Joey Carbery and Andrew Conway, I share Schmidt's trust in Rob Kearney.

As he proved conclusively in Soldier Field in Chicago, Kearney is still a powerful presence. You cannot buy the experience he has, particularly when there are doubts over the alternatives.

While Jacob Stockdale is only 21, he is a natural on the left and is in excellent form, with Keith Earls a shoo-in for his more comfortable right flank.

At loosehead I would have Jack McGrath, as Cian Healy offers game-changing impact on the hour.

Rory Best will be 37 come Japan so there has to be a question mark going forward but for now he is the right captain and correct selection at hooker.

In the back-row, Rhys Ruddock is on fire and Jack Conan more than ready but I expect Peter O'Mahony - who adds a crucial extra option in the lineout - Sean O'Brien and CJ Stander to start.

It would be tough on Ruddock but using the same rationale as Healy I would keep Conan in reserve to make an impact off the bench.

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