Wednesday 27 March 2019

'Each time we meet, the squad is slightly different'

Schmidt struggling to whittle his panel down to 31 for World Cup as he admits some players won’t get an opportunity in warm-ups

Eoin Reddan during squad training yesterday
Eoin Reddan during squad training yesterday
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It's good to talk. Joe Schmidt and his management team have been chewing the fat on a daily basis at Carton House, with a pen and paper at the ready as they try and pick a 31-man squad to take on the world.

Yesterday, the coach did his first pre-match press conference of the new season after unveiling an experimental team to face Wales in Cardiff and gave some insight into the way he is thinking with three games to go before he must submit his final panel.

Schmidt confirmed that he is planning bringing 17 forwards and 14 backs to the World Cup, while he will cut seven or eight members of his squad over the course of the next week as the selection process steps up a notch.


The New Zealander re-iterated that not every one of the 46 players currently training at Carton House would be afforded an opportunity to impress, but said Cian Healy wouldn't necessarily have to play in one of the four warm-up games as long as he'll be able to take on Canada on September 19.

This weekend's visit to the Welsh capital will help inform his choices and those selected have been handed a glorious opportunity. As Schmidt said, some won't be so lucky.

Of the starting XV who claimed the Six Nations in Edinburgh last March, only captain Jamie Heaslip and stalwart Mike Ross are called into action from the start on the first week of the season, with Rory Best on the bench.

That means a slew of front-liners will be integrated in the coming weeks, with the clash against Wales at home in three weeks' time likely to see a full-strength team.

"We're trying to individualise it," Schmidt explained. "Some guys played a lot last season so we've tried to give them a slightly longer pre-season, therefore they're not playing this weekend.

"There will be an integration of different players week to week, certainly over the next two weeks - this weekend and the next two games - and then we have to make decisions on the back of that.

"You don't have to be a mathematician to know that with 46 players in camp we won't be changing the team completely week to week, therefore some players probably won't get an opportunity.

"But that's part of the pre-season, it has allowed us to get to know some players and for them to get an opportunity in the environment that hopefully will be an investment for the Six Nations."

However, nobody who is in Maynooth this weeks wants to use this period as a development opportunity and it is up to them to prove that they can do a job in the here and now.

By the end of the month, Schmidt will have to arrive at a final panel for the World Cup and it is clear that he is already consumed by the challenge.

"Daily," he said matter-of-factly when asked how often the final decision has been discussed.

However, the process is far from scientific and is taking place in an ad hoc manner to suit the needs of the management and preparation.

"Even if you start to get some clear ideas about who and when you might the narrow the squad to, there's always the fear that if, for example, we narrow the squad at the end of this week, and went out and played and picked up two injuries, and you're ringing guys to bring them back into the squad. . . it's not ideal," said Schmidt.

"As much as you'll express to them the importance they'll have, they'll feel that their value is lessened slightly. It's not the ideal.

"So we'll try to manage that as best as we can, and that's why it's not as clinical as we'd like it to be, as mathematical. . .

"But we are meeting every day, and sometimes we're more focused on who will be in the 31, and sometimes we're focused on who might not be in the 38 or 39 that is involved next week or in the week leading up to the Wales (home) match."

Although he'd prefer to just make his decision now, Schmidt's job is to give as many players as possible a chance while also ensuring his bankers have game-time under their belts.


Crucially, he has come to a decision on the balance he wants to strike. "It would probably lean itself towards a 17/14 (forwards/backs) split and that is as candid as I can be," he said.

"How that is split is difficult. There are players like Iain Henderson who I thought had a super finish to the season playing No 6. . . we have got him at No 4 at the weekend and you might see him in the loose trio as well because having players that can just give us a little bit more flexibility.

"There are other players positionally in the back-line who are a little more versatile than others.

"It's getting that balance. You want to have the best player but you want to have the coverage and I'm not sure we have got too close to it.

"I can tell you that each time we meet, the squad is slightly different.

"As often as not we probably muddy the waters rather than give ourselves clarity, but while we try to make some decisions based on how guys are training, the litmus test is getting them out in a Test match arena and seeing how they match up.

"We're hoping that we know a little bit more on Sunday and we'll know a little bit more on Sunday week, and that then helps us make what we hope are pertinent decisions,"

Training has been assessed, but the ability to perform between the white lines is crucial and Schmidt and his confidants are hoping for plenty of talking points after tomorrow's battle.

"It is where we find out, in front of a big stadium and a big crowd whether they can stay in the game and physically and mentally deliver what is required," Schmidt summed up.

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