Wednesday 24 January 2018

No shortage of tough choices for Schmidt ahead of flight to South Africa

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On Wednesday morning Joe Schmidt will be down to the final four weeks in what has been his longest season in professional rugby. First he will announce the circa 31/32 heading to South Africa next month for the three-Test tour; thereafter he will have just three more selection meetings before closing his laptop and heading to New Zealand for a holiday.

When he comes back from that break he can expect a call from performance director David Nucifora to see how much longer Schmidt will be staying in Ireland.

For now the issues are solely around the tour, and they have been well documented, depending on what part of the country is dispensing advice. So if you're from Ulster you'll have been jumping up and down demanding the placing of Paddy Jackson higher up the pecking order than Ian Madigan.

If you're from Leinster your loyalty to Madigan may have been diluted by his decision to head to Bordeaux next season. And if you're from that part of France then your wish would be that he doesn't tour at all - and thereafter takes a break from international rugby until his days at the club are over. There is every chance he won't get the call in the first place.

For Schmidt, he will have to toe the line here: Jackson is staying with Ulster; Madigan is leaving Leinster. The clear policy from head office on this is that your chances of a green jersey will not be helped by moving abroad for your club rugby.

The situation with Marty Moore is something similar. While Madigan is happy to be taking flight to France, Moore's head seemingly has been melted about the shorter journey to Wasps. Bigger money for sure, but the tighthead's timing is not great: where two seasons ago he was next in line behind Mike Ross, now Tadhg Furlong, Nathan White and Finlay Bealham are on the scene.

Moore's battle with finding the right fighting weight has been ongoing. So Dai Young has a project on his hands, but his student is keen to work with the Wasps coach. For which of course he will be better rewarded than had he stayed at home. We'll know soon enough next season if his game benefits from the move, but with no pitch time for Leinster since the end of January, Moore is not about to jump on a plane to South Africa.

Brace yourself, for neither is Garry Ringrose. When before the Six Nations Joe Schmidt started sending signals that the best prospect since Brian O'Driscoll needed a graduated entry to the next level, Test rugby in South Africa didn't look like part of the plan.

And it still doesn't. Rather, barring a calamity, he will be capped in November.

Stuart McCloskey will also have to wait until then at least to get back in green. This will infuriate the Ulster faithful, but there is something about his game that Schmidt clearly thinks needs fixing. At least McCloskey's team-mate Stuart Olding will be back in the fold, which would provide comfort for Schmidt in leaving out Madigan, given the Ulster man's versatility. His twin set of caps were picked up almost a year apart, between USA and Georgia, two seasons ago, so it's good to see him back. It's worth noting the esteem in which Olding is held by his Ulster team-mates. He desperately needs a free run from injury to spread that particular gospel.

With so many forwards out of the frame because of injury, Schmidt's margins for selecting a decent pack are a lot tighter. He got good news on the recovery from concussion of Donnacha Ryan, who played 50 minutes for a Munster Development side against Ireland under 20 three days ago.

The shortage of bodies should also open the door to Dave Kilcoyne who was involved in the World Cup warm-ups last August but was left behind when the squad was selected. In a group of tired bodies he will be doing his utmost to look fresh.

Backs: Tommy Bowe

Forwards: Cian Healy, Nathan White, Mike McCarthy, Seán O'Brien, Josh van der Flier, Peter O'Mahony

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