Wednesday 20 February 2019

Neil Francis: Schmidt has a team to win the Grand Slam - Here is who he should pick to bring it home

Irish match-day 23 is strongest in Six Nations but avoiding pitfalls of tough campaign is vital

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Wake me up when the team actually runs out on to the park.

Squad announcements or team announcements are pretty humdrum these days I almost expect to see my own name in the list such is the size of that particular part of the organisation.

It is though a little bit more complicated than that and Joe Schmidt has to make at least five calls out of his enormous squad which could in the end be vital in finishing the year with something special.

Schmidt will have had to recognise the contribution of quite a number of players on the margins and for once he might have to acknowledge this.

The headmaster says that he picks on form but this is never the case and he will pick all his old favourites or players who fit in to the way he wants the team to play.

I do think he has a very good chance to do something this year and two years chasing England up and down the table is not where we want to be.

Ireland have the best 23-man squad in the championship and it is down to a significant factor - that of injury - which will determine how well they do this year.

The first question that you ask when you see the squad which was announced yesterday is can they win the Grand Slam with the personnel if all of those are available to their squad?

The answer is yes, providing they don't suffer the same injury blight which is currently being experienced by the Welsh, Scottish and English squads.

Player preparation and player injury management is a real skill. Schmidt managed to keep his Leinster team fresh and available for selection. He has done a pretty good job with his Irish team so far. This is something that his English and French rivals can only aspire to as all of their key players are flogged to death.

It is something that has Schmidt fraying at the edges, the fact that a Grand Slam has not been won under his stewardship.

He will get it - he has a real chance this year. On a question of mathematics, the IRFU spent €4 million in a bid to host the 2023 World Cup. Maybe it would have been better to spend €4 million on keeping Joe Schmidt here so that we can win it instead of hosting it. Once Schmidt finishes with us after the Japanese World Cup, all bets are off.

The decisions he has to make while seemingly minor are absolutely crucial.

The starting team which I think will run out against France in Paris on February 3 is:

15. Rob Kearney, 14. Andrew Conway, 13. Robbie Henshaw, 12. Bundee Aki, 11. Jacob Stockdale, 10. Johnny Sexton, 9. Conor Murray, 1. Jack McGrath, 2. Rory Best, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Devin Toner, 5. Iain Henderson, 6. Peter O'Mahony, 7. Dan Leavy, 8. CJ Stander.

16. Sean Cronin, 17. Cian Healy, 18. John Ryan, 19. Ultan Dillane, 20. Josh van der Flier, 21. Luke McGrath, 22. Joey Carbery, 23. Keith Earls.

The marginal calls are as follows:

1. Loosehead - I think Jack McGrath has established himself as the starting loosehead. Whatever sort of post-Lions syndrome he was suffering from has cost him dearly but his all-round game and his scrummaging are superior to Cian Healy's. I think the key factor here though is his discipline. McGrath has been able to keep his temper and his discipline in the white hot heat of international Test rugby. He does not have an alter ego and the number of suspensions, yellow cards and silly penalties that he gives away are a long way off what Healy has managed in the last three or four years. Coming off his suspension, I suspect Healy will find himself on the bench this time as Schmidt continues his bid for zero penalties in a game.

2. Openside Flanker - this is a big decision given the quality that is available here to Ireland. Seán O'Brien has moved in to the 'ooh aah Paul McGrath' stage of his career and his time on and off the pitch and his continuous injury management means that he will always be missing in the Six Nations and in Leinster's Champions League. When he is fit, such are his qualities that he will be brought back in pretty much straight away. We are told that he will miss the first two matches.

We don't know what to believe anymore - it could be more, it could be less, how about that! The modern game is now a mockery at ruck time. Nobody gets into a ruck anymore and if a player is in a ruck they manage to get up on their feet and get out of it again.

Certainly if you are of a mind to counter-ruck on the spur of the moment you could pick up six or seven turnover balls in any given game or do you charge your back-row with trying to get in and stealing quite a few? Dan Leavy, as he has done in all his matches this year, has picked up a significant number of steals, particularly in the Munster v Leinster game at Thomond Park.

At this stage he is as good if not better than Peter O'Mahony in this phase of the game. Ireland's likely back-row are all No 8s or converted No 8s and therefore Ireland have the luxury of picking an openside on the bench which will likely be Josh van der Flier with the dynamic and now reliable Jack Coman unlucky to lose out.

3 Halves - On the basis of his consistent excellence, Luke McGrath gets the shadow scrum-half berth. Picking a closer at 10 is a far more difficult proposition. There is absolutely no chance that Johnny Sexton will get through this campaign without some form of injury and so the closer may have to become a starter too.

Joe makes the call and Joey Carbery, whose broken arm will not have impinged upon his ability to stay fit, will get in.

Ian Keatley has had a good season but when the bullets started flying in the last 10 minutes over in the U Arena, Keatley made a number of mistakes which have characterised his inconsistencies in former years. Act 3, Scene 2 in Macbeth: "Then comes my fit again I had else been perfect."

Joe Schmidt can ill afford for his starting out-half or his closer to suffer from "saucy doubts". Ross Byrne, coming up along the rails, could surprise everybody but if Carbery is fit then Joe will pick him.

4 Back three - on the basis that Rob Kearney performed very well in November, it probably means that Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway will start and the very impressive Keith Earls will be launched from the bench. Once again all four players occupying the back three positions are full-backs or converted full-backs.

I feel now that with the likely inclusion of Ultan Dillane, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, there will be no pressure - not that there ever was - on Schmidt to include any more Connacht players.

This team can win the Grand Slam and should win the Six Nations Championship - luck and luck with injuries being the key factor.

The sun rises in the east and it sets in the west and Simon Zebo's career with Ireland is also setting in the west.

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