Saturday 20 July 2019

Former Ireland centre Field urges Schmidt to trust his fringe players

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Maurice Field of Ireland is tackled by Ieuan Evans of Wales during the Five Nations international between Wales and Ireland in 1997
David Kelly

David Kelly

Former Ireland centre Maurice Field was already reflecting on a lost opportunity on English soil as he settled down with his family to watch Ireland's Triple Crown showdown with the old enemy last weekend.

A heartbreaking last-minute defeat in the annual fundraising Legends' blowout at the Twickenham Stoop on Friday evening made him feel all of the 50 years he celebrated with so many former comrades.

Events that unfolded less than 24 hours later in the same corner of South West London did little to alleviate bruised bones or egos.

"I thought it was a lost opportunity in so many ways," says the former Malone centre. "Not least because, if Owen Farrell had been binned for his late hit, Ireland could have won the match there and then."

But it was the punishment dished out to Johnny Sexton – who visibly wilted as the game went on – that annoyed Field even more, watching agog as the reserve Ireland out-half, Paddy Jackson, remained benched.

The post-match discussions concerning Sexton have centred on his fitness. Although most supporters divined that the Racing Metro star was injured during the Twickenham encounter, this was only confirmed by Joe Schmidt's Irish management team on Tuesday when it emerged that he had sustained a thumb injury.

For former Belfast fireman Field, who felt that Sexton's injury may have been of a more serious nature – he suggests a knock to the head – it prompted a more obvious inquiry.

Why was Jackson (pictured below), the nominated and presumably trusted alternative, not produced into the fray when it was clear that Sexton's efforts were exponentially enervating the out-half as Ireland chased the opportunity to win the game?

"It seemed to me that Sexton took a knock to the head and was a wee bit groggy and it made you wonder is he that far ahead of Paddy, even in that condition," says Field.

"For so long, there was parity between the Irish competing out-halves, whether it was David Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara or Ronan and Johnny.

"Personally, given what was happening to Johnny, I would have thought it was prudent for Joe Schmidt to bring Paddy on.

"Mike Brown was being allowed to have a field day because the kicks weren't good enough to allow the Irish chasers to put pressure on him running back.

"And if it was a hand injury, then that's something you're going to be really conscious of.

"It affects your ability to distribute the ball for one thing and it's hard to tackle, particularly with the skin-tight jerseys the players have nowadays. You're thinking: 'Can I do this?'

"Only Joe can answer the question, but it's a 23-man game these days and you have got to have trust in the bench. Otherwise, why have them there in the first place?"

The main concern is that Jackson's potential has been undermined by being relegated to second-choice place-kicker at Ulster to Ruan Pienaar, the Springbok legend who's contracted to the province for three more years.

"Sure, that has to be part of an out-half's weaponry," admits Field. "And maybe Paddy has been stifled by that, although there are other place-kicking options, particularly Rob Kearney from distance."

Field believes that, for all the anguish over last weekend's defeat, the championship is still more of a likelihood than not and, although he demurs at talk of the absence of the 'X-factor,' he feels that Jackson starting against Italy at the Aviva is an option definitely worth exploring.

"Sometimes it needs a player to be honest and say: 'Look, I don't think I'm 100pc here'," he says, again referring to Sexton's obvious difficulties in Twickenham.


"Hopefully, he can come through this injury in time for Saturday week against Italy. But I think it might be a good idea to start Paddy in those circumstances, because you can always bring Johnny in off the bench.

"Italy are fraying at the edges a little bit and they always seem to struggle when it gets to this stage of the championship in terms of their form and strength in depth.

"Ireland didn't pay all that badly. I wouldn't be keen on making wholesale changes. Gordon D'Arcy was off the boil for a year or two, but he's been putting in performances.

"There has been talk about Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald, but it's all about settled combinations for Ireland now. And do these players have enough game time?

"Joe has demonstrated that he will give players a chance. He has done so with Andrew Trimble and he has taken that chance."

Extending that faith to his entire squad, insists the 17-times capped Malone man, will be the key to maintaining their stranglehold on the championship.

Irish Independent

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