Monday 21 May 2018

Comment - New Ireland faces will flounder without core of experience to guide them

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Back when Munster were at the top of their cycle we remember one of their main movers describing how hard it had been to get into the side. The problem wasn't confined to shifting the man ahead of you in the queue, he explained, it was about getting the right opportunity to make your case. And being part of a job lot of changes for an away game in Newport, in the depths of winter, didn't qualify as an open door.

The optimum was to be one of, at most, a couple of challengers dropped into a powerful line-up in Limerick. In the best of company you had a decent chance of looking good. In which case supporters would go home thinking: 'Your man didn't look out of place, did he?' The alternate conversation might be with one of the coaches who would point to your night in Newport and declare that you hadn't exactly set the place alight.

In picking his squad this week for the US and Japan next month, Joe Schmidt will lean more towards the Limerick model than the Newport one. The rationale is two-fold: losing Test matches is bad for business, and anyone who says a defeat in June is irrelevant is in the wrong game; and you will optimise the development of your next crop by mixing them with a majority of men who know the ropes.

This policy gets a bit tricky on the public relations front when you factor in the World Cup cycle. So if in the summer of 2017 you include someone who is unlikely to be in the mix come Japan 2019, brace yourself.

The only thing worse than selecting someone now, when you know they'll be in their dressing gown and slippers in two years, is to ditch them when they are still the best in their position, and slotting in someone who is not ready. And what if the unready one gets a few runs and turns out to be simply unsuitable - does that not demean the value of Test rugby?

If you look at what's left after Warren Gatland has cherry-picked his crew for New Zealand then you can see that, despite 11 absentees, plus a handful of injuries, Schmidt doesn't have to stray far outside his squads for last November and the Six Nations. Those groups are put together mostly with an eye on what's around the corner, but if you are busy with the Tipp-Ex come summer then either you've got it wrong in the first place or it's been a very dramatic/traumatic few months between form and injury. And it hasn't.

Those front-liners who have been derailed by injury include the Leinster trio Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Sean Cronin. Kearney's aerial ability alone would have got him to New Zealand had he finished the season fit - well, fitter. Both himself and Heaslip may yet feature for Leinster if they get past Friday night's Guinness PRO12 semi-final against Scarlets at the RDS, but Kearney would seem to be further down that road.

Cronin, meanwhile, has had just three runs since returning from injury, the last of which was a half-hour off the bench against Clermont last month. They might give him a summer off, which would suit Connacht's Dave Heffernan nicely. Along with Rory Scannell, Jacob Stockdale, Ulster-bound John Cooney, Andrew Porter - who is being looked at as a tighthead as much as a loosehead - and Kieran Treadwell, it could be a significant summer. The squad will be announced on Tuesday.

15: Rob Kearney, Tiernan O'Halloran; 14/11: Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls; 13/12: Garry Ringrose, Rory Scannell, Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall; 10/9: Paddy Jackson, Joey Carbery, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath, John Cooney; 1/3: Cian Healy, David Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Finlay Bealham, Andrew Porter; 2: Niall Scannell, James Tracy, Dave Heffernan; 4/5: Devin Toner, Kieran Treadwell, Billy Holland, Quinn Roux; 6/7/8: Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Jack O'Donoghue

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