Friday 20 April 2018

Joe Schmidt explains controversial squad omissions as he decides on Fitzgerald's replacement

Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Today was the first opportunity for the media to quiz Joe Schmidt about his squad for next month's tour of South Africa, and the fact that the press conference was held just two days after Connacht comprehensively beat Leinster in the Pro12 final only added to the intrigue.

There was plenty of debate after last week's squad was announced, with Tommy O'Donnell, Stuart McCloskey and Matt Healy among those who could count themselves unlucky to not be included.

The Connacht wing, however, may be added to the squad as soon as this evening after Schmidt confirmed that Luke Fitzgerald has been ruled out of the tour with a knee injury.

"Matt would certainly be one of the guys in contention," Schmidt says.

"Again, one of the advantages with Matt is that he's a left wing, left footer, which would be like-for-like with Luke Fitzgerald.

"So Matt would certainly be one of the guys in contention. When we get a little bit of time to get together, unfortunately, some of those decisions might not have been able to be made this morning, it just wasn't an opportunity we've had to get together.

"We will make that decision this evening and we'll have someone else in camp tomorrow and it could well be Matt."

Schmidt was also asked why Healy, Niyi Adeolokun and Tiernan O'Halloran were all omitted from the original squad, a decision that came under more scrutiny after the trio all scored tries in the Pro12 final.

The Ireland boss refused to reveal why he decided against picking them, but did offer praise towards the Connacht back three.

Read more: George Hook: Joe Schmidt may well be the worst coach/selector in Irish rugby history

"Look, they're discussions I have with players," he said when asked for reasons why the Connacht backs were selected.

"Some of the ones who are were outstanding, certainly the back three for Connacht on the weekend. Between Niyi, Matt and Tiernan I thought they had a super game and obviously that immediately will put pressure on their opponents."

Schmidt also spoke broadly about the decision-making process that he and his coaching staff went through before selecting the squad.

"I'd say the first thing is that you're never going to get every decision right but we have looked through streams of footage, we have gone to games and watched individuals for periods of time - watching them off the ball as well as on the ball - and we've tried make the best decisions on that basis, including some of the combinations that have worked for us and we would hope would work again."

Munster flanker Tommy O'Donnell wasn't selected because he wouldn't have been available for the entire tour while Schmidt feels that McCloskey will benefit from a full pre-season in order to improve on a stellar campaign.

"Tommy picked up an injury at the end of the season and that's probably ok right now," Schmidt said.

"Tommy was not going to be available for the full tour and as a result of that it made it a little bit complicated with Tommy.

"We obviously demonstrated how keen we are on Tommy's abilities selecting him to start against Scotland. He's the most recent guy who has played seven for us. We do believe that the tour will inevitably be quite attritional and we're going to need everyone on deck and full available.

"I've had a really good discussion with Stu [McCloskey] and he is a guy who has picked up a couple of injuries but he is coming back to full fitness obviously.

"He was fit enough to start and play in the semi-final and give a solid account of himself. He's had a massive first season. It's really his first season as a starting player in Ulster and for him to be projected into a Test match at Twickenham, he's a guy who could do with a full summer and come back next season having learned a few lessons, having demonstrated a fair bit of potential at the same time."

The inclusion of uncapped Quinn Roux also surprised some, given that the second row couldn't make it into the Connacht 23 for last Saturday's league final. However, Schmidt says he has been impressed with the South African-born lock's set-piece play, which edged him into the squad.

"He has been in and out with Connacht," Schmidt said.

"I suppose one of the things with the four other second rows that we have picked is that they all tend to play on the loosehead side of the scrum.

"Quinn was the sole tighthead scrum of the player who was fully fit and available and he has shown potential. He's a very strong scrummager, he's very strong in the lineout and if you go to South Africa you've got to be very, very good in your set-piece.

"Quinn is an investment in our set-piece, it's an investment in Quinn and we're very keen for Quinn to invest in us and demonstrate what he can do for us."

Another topic covered was Schmidt's future - with the Ireland coach's contract set to end next summer. The New Zealander said he will make a decision at the end of the summer after a chat with his mum, while he also added that it is unrealistic to expect Ireland to play exactly like Connacht given the step up required at international level.

"I do think in the Test arena it is another level up and it doesn't always mean that you can play the way that you'd like to play," he said.

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