Monday 20 November 2017

George Hook: Schmidt's bold selection a rare mix of logic, focus and invention

Ireland's Luke Marshall
Ireland's Luke Marshall
George Hook

George Hook

Today's game against Australia is the defining match of the November series. Defeat followed by the almost inevitable loss to the All Blacks next weekend will be a disappointing start to the Joe Schmidt era.

On the other hand a win would guarantee a satisfactory return of two wins out of three and the resultant confidence might produce a freedom of expression a week later that could deliver the unthinkable – a first victory over the All Blacks.

The match is viewed as too close to call by the bookmaking fraternity, with Ireland on the handicap at plus two points. However Ivan Yates, himself no mean hand at assessing sporting risk, considers a bet on Ireland to be the investment of the week.

I do not share my radio colleague's optimism but Schmidt's selection will have put a spring in the step of everybody wending their way to the stadium this evening. The coach is not the first Irish rugby selector to spring a surprise, but he is one of the few to show logic and focus, coupled with invention, in his choice.

The Kiwi, unlike the Italian who until recently presided over Ireland's soccer fortunes, is not hidebound by defensive fears. Nor does he appear to have distorted views about individuals. Schmidt has challenged the accepted order and picked a team that fits the strategies that were so successful at Leinster.

The return of Sean O'Brien, Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy was predictable but the inclusion of Luke Marshall, Eoin Reddan and Devin Toner were not obvious and bear closer inspection.

Toner is not everybody's cup of tea as a lock forward and his high centre of gravity and lack of dynamism make him a poor ball carrier. His selection may owe a lot to the fallibility of Ireland's throwing at the line-out.

In extremis one could hardly miss the towering figure of the Leinster lock. Toner may be the biggest beneficiary of the change of coach and it could do wonders for his confidence.

It was a brave call by Schmidt to break up a centre partnership of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll that had lined out together more than 200 times. Marshall is a great talent and if he can avoid concussion problems he could be the stand-out midfielder of Schmidt's reign.

However, it is the change at scrum-half that promises the greatest dividend; Conor Murray has been an average performer for club and country since his elevation at the World Cup in 2011. His strengths of physique, aggression and confidence do not make up for his slow passing and poor decision-making. Too many times he shows poor judgment under pressure.

Reddan in contrast is all about speed of foot, pass and thought. The work of the ball producers up front is improved or undone by the performance of the link at No 9. Schmidt is committed to an expansive game and Reddan is key.

WORRYING

Ireland can win if they close down the outstanding Wallaby backline. The display in that area against Samoa was deeply worrying. This week O'Driscoll said he was looking forward to passing on his experience to young players. I hope that does not include his propensity to come up in defence without reference to his inside centre. His mistake against Samoa was awful.

Schmidt will have spent a huge amount of time this week in obviating those mistakes and in Sexton he has the best defender at No 10 since Mick English. There won't be glaring errors but that may not be enough against a backline orchestrated by Quade Cooper and Will Genia at half-back and the strike power of Tevita Kuridrani and Matt Toomua in the centre.

Australia's seven-try haul against Italy was outstanding when one remembers the performance of the Azzurri against France and Ireland earlier in the year. The Aussie scrum survived against the power of Martin Castrogiovanni and company and the backs opened up one of the best-organised defences in the Six Nations.

That result will worry Ireland. Healy and Mike Ross may be crucial as Sekope Kepu, who replaces Ben Alexander at tighthead, has done nothing to show he is a world-class scrummager. Yet a New Zealand referee rather than an eccentric Frenchman will help the visitors.

The Irish back-row of Jamie Heaslip, Peter O'Mahony and O'Brien is exciting and the Tullow open-side's duel with Michael Hooper should be fascinating. As in the World Cup, the Wallabies will miss David Pocock. It could be the difference today as it was then. Australian confidence is at a low ebb and they lost too many close matches in the recent past to feel comfortable in the final quarter.

Since Allan Jones brought the three Ella brothers in an Australian schoolboys side to Ireland in the early '80s, the Wallabies have been to the forefront of invention in back play. They could find a foreign coach has finally understood how Ireland want to play. It will be a fascinating contest but it may have come too early in Schmidt's reign.

Irish Independent

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