Wednesday 19 September 2018

Does he pick Simon Zebo? - Five issues facing Joe Schmidt ahead of squad announcement for autumn internationals

Big month ahead as Irish coach pivots towards 2019 World Cup in Japan

Joe Schmidt must decide whether to include Simon Zebo in his upcoming squad with the Munster man set for a move to France. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt must decide whether to include Simon Zebo in his upcoming squad with the Munster man set for a move to France. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt today unveils his squad for an international window that marks the moment the World Cup cycle pivots forward towards Japan in 2019.

Talk of that tournament will hardly be entertained in the weeks to come as players and coaches focus on the individual tasks of beating South Africa, Fiji and Argentina but since Ireland lost to the Pumas in the 2015 quarter-final the coach has always had the next instalment in mind.

Building depth has been a key goal for the New Zealander who infamously lost five key players in the build-up to that last-eight disappointment.

Since the World Cup in England, he has handed out 28 new caps. At times, his hand was forced by injury and unavailability, while the summer tour to Japan and the United States handed him a more traditional opportunity to introduce new blood.

Now, the time for consolidation begins. Apart from a couple of experienced players who have now served their time to qualify on residency like Bundee Aki, the number of home-grown newcomers is likely to be small.

The Springboks clash has sold out, but compared to last year's schedule that included two meetings with the mighty All Blacks, this year's November series does not give off the same air of excitement.

After these games, there will be 16 Tests before the World Cup warm-ups begin and so the window is closing for players to prove themselves in the white heat of the Test arena.

If Ireland want to reclaim their Six Nations title in the spring, a big November would be a good springboard.

So, what are the big issues Schmidt has been considering as he faces forward into the second half of this World Cup cycle?

The back-up No 10

With Paddy Jackson currently unavailable as he awaits trial on rape charges, the question of who will provide cover for Johnny Sexton is a very real concern for Schmidt.

The Leinster No 10 is the pre-eminent out-half in Ireland and is in excellent form, but the gap between him and the rest is a significant one.

Since Ian Madigan chose to leave for Bordeaux, Jackson has been the understudy for all bar two of Ireland's games. Joey Carbery has been next in line, while Ian Keatley was involved during the last Six Nations when Sexton and Carbery were both out injured.

The 21-year-old Carbery has played all of his rugby at full-back this season though and his last competitive outing in the No 10 shirt was a difficult afternoon against the US Eagles back in June when charge-downs of his kicks led directly to two tries.

His versatility means he looks a good bench option, but he has not been kicking goals for Leinster and if Sexton was to go down in a tight game then his back-up needs to be reliable off the tee.

Unless Madigan is called up given the shortage of options, a Keatley recall seems likely but Schmidt could also look to include Ross Byrne who has deputised well for Sexton at Leinster.

The Zebo question

Given he will effectively take himself out of the Ireland equation by moving to France at the end of this season, it remains to be seen if Simon Zebo will remain part of Schmidt's plans for the coming campaign.

The Corkman has been a regular Ireland starter over the past year, earning the coach's trust with reliable performance levels and some outstanding moments.

He may well be included given the absence of others. Rob Kearney has been out since September with a hamstring problem but his likely return this weekend is timely.

Jared Payne, meanwhile, has yet to play this season after his Lions tour ended early as a result of headaches and his continued absence is a major concern.

Carbery has deputised brilliantly for Kearney at provincial level, while Tiernan O'Halloran has been playing well for Connacht.

With Keith Earls in flying form, it seems like only one wing spot will be up for grabs in the starting XV with Schmidt regulars Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney yet to hit top form.

Zebo, meanwhile, is flying for Munster and were he not leaving for Racing 92 there'd be no doubt he'd be included.

There may be no harm in keeping him around for a little while longer.

Backing Best

There was a chance that Rory Best would miss these internationals given he suffered a nasty hamstring injury before his season began, but he returned to action just in time last weekend.

There has been some speculation about whether the coach would consider changing the captaincy given the incumbent is now 35 and will be 37 by the time Japan rolls around, but there seems little desire on Schmidt's part to do so.

Best has been an excellent leader for Ireland who has carried himself with dignity since taking over from Paul O'Connell and he has been at the helm for some famous moments in Ireland's rugby history.

Certainly, Johnny Sexton isn't expecting a change of captaincy in the coming month.

"Rory is doing a fantastic job over the last while since Paul has retired. I am sure he will continue to do a great job over this season and beyond," he said this week.

Picking the best back-row

One area where Schmidt can't complain about a lack of depth is in the back-row.

A year ago, he was able to beat the All Blacks in Chicago despite leaving Seán O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony back in Dublin and the Munster captain's struggle to force his way into the side last season summed up the most competitive area in the Irish squad.

Last summer, Rhys Ruddock captained the touring squad and earned strong reviews and he's carried excellent form into this campaign while O'Mahony, O'Brien and CJ Stander are all Test Lions and a combination of that three looks the most likely.

But Jack Conan has realistic claims after making the Leinster No 8 shirt his own in Jamie Heaslip's absence, while Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy's fitness soften the blow for the management of losing Josh van der Flier to injury.

Tommy O'Donnell's Munster form should see him recalled, adding to the selection headache in this area of strength.

Integrating Aki

Bundee Aki has long been on Ireland's radar and, having served his time, the Connacht centre looks set to make his debut this month.

Leinster's Robbie Henshaw is a fixture in the Ireland midfield and with Garry Ringrose and Payne out injured, it seems likely that the pairing that worked so well together when the westerners claimed the 2016 Guinness PRO12 could be reunited in the Irish midfield.

Rory Scannell might have something to say about that given his strong form levels at Munster this season, while Ulster's Luke Marshall is also in the mix but Aki's athleticism and skills may be impossible to overlook for Schmidt.

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