Friday 16 November 2018

Comment: Rise of Larmourmania and expansive rugby puts pressure on Joe Schmidt to deliver in style

Leinster's Jordan Larmour. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Jordan Larmour. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It's not just defenders that Jordan Larmour has been wrong-footing over the past few weeks. In the aftermath of his holiday-period Pro14 tours de force, quite a few pundits urged supporters not to get carried away. Remember, they cautioned, he might not even play for Leinster in Europe this season. And Joe Schmidt probably won't bring Larmour in for the Six Nations because he didn't involve him in the autumn internationals.

Yet there was Larmour on Saturday last starting ahead of Rob Kearney for Leinster against Glasgow in the European Cup. And on Wednesday there he was in the squad for the opening Six Nations match against France. Leo Cullen and Schmidt are apparently no more resistant to Larmourmania than the rest of us.

You can understand the pundits who thought Larmour's rise wouldn't be quite so stratospheric. The kid makes it difficult to believe your eyes. The suspicion is we might be too close to take a balanced view of him. You need an outside perspective, like that of Stuart Barnes who I think may have given the most interesting assessment of the full-back's talents. He compares Larmour with Jason Robinson and reckons he may be the most exciting European full-back prospect since the former England star. He believes Schmidt will have no option but to blood Larmour at international level because, like Robinson, his rawness is cancelled out by enormous and unusual potential.

If the new kid on the block didn't do anything spectacular on his European debut it was nevertheless a game which added to his burgeoning reputation. There was a menace about everything he did and when Glasgow put a loose clearance kick in his direction, the way he ran it back at the heart of their defence and combined with James Lowe made it seem as though the game had been speeded up. A couple of passes later and Leinster were crossing for one of their nine tries.

The impression of added velocity was also present when Larmour headed for the line in the second half only to be called back because of a knock-on by Lowe. The collective sigh of disappointment from the crowd summed up how much they wanted to see something special from the wonder boy. They'll see plenty before the year is out.

That Leo Cullen gave Larmour and Lowe, whose spectacular range of talents is a reminder of the enormous depth of New Zealand rugby, the full 80 minutes suggests he sees them as a combination which can make the difference in the big European encounters to come. It indicates a cheering sense of adventure on the part of the Leinster management.

The risk involved with flair players was illustrated near the end of the game when Lowe, dashing out of the defensive line in a bid to make a spectacular interception, was left with egg on his face as Glasgow got in for a consolation try. For that matter, Larmour hasn't had the time to develop the rock-like defensive solidity and physical presence of Rob Kearney. The question which Leinster and, in the latter case, Ireland have to answer is whether what Lowe and Larmour have is more important than what they haven't.

In the past managers have tended to take the conservative option. Hence Eddie O'Sullivan's initial preference for Girvan Dempsey over Geordan Murphy and Schmidt's selection of Dave Kearney over Simon Zebo. Defenders of such decisions tend to bang on about 'fundamentals' and such like. But in the end there is something slightly uninspiring about a player whose greatest recommendation is, apparently, "He doesn't do a lot wrong."

The All Blacks tend to focus on the kind of unique value a player can add to the team. How many New Zealand wings have we seen who were far from defensively watertight but who compensated for this by running in tries from all angles? That aversion to caution has moved the All Blacks ahead of everyone else in world rugby. If Ireland are to compete with them in the World Cup we'll need to embrace the same approach.

The signs are good. Not just the selection of Larmour but the choice of the more subtle skills of Munster's Rory Scannell ahead of the crash-ball physicality of Ulster's Stuart McCloskey suggest Ireland may be a bit more adventurous in this year's Six Nations.

Schmidt has been unfairly criticised in the past. He did wonderfully well to win Six Nations titles at a time when, as Champions Cup results showed, Irish rugby was in something of a slump at provincial level. The cautious approach was also probably the most realistic one. But now not just Leinster but Munster and Ulster are favouring an expansive game and playing it very well.

In a strange way this puts the Irish manager under pressure. Unlike his soccer counterpart Schmidt really does have the personnel to play a sparkling game. After the Champagne of the winter, supporters are unlikely to accept vin ordinaire in the spring.

Sunday Indo Sport

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