Sunday 16 June 2019

Quality players will miss out when Schmidt sticks to the tried and trusted

Ireland manager Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the run-up to the Heineken Champions Cup final last month Leinster pulled a little selection manoeuvre that suggested they had parked form and focused on the occasion. Having already made the big call of preferring Ed Byrne to Jack McGrath, when Saracens came into view they popped the man with 54 caps for his country and three for the Lions on the bench to support Cian Healy.

This is understandable, if hard to justify: either you're in form or you've lost form and from a long way back Jack McGrath was struggling to reconcile the new with the old. Byrne had deserved his place. Roll on a couple of weeks later to the Guinness Pro14 final and the new order had been restored, with Byrne backing up Healy and McGrath not in the match day squad.

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Swap Byrne for Eric O'Sullivan and we had a roughly similar set of circumstances when it came to the preliminary Ireland squad for the World Cup. Jack McGrath was the man in common. The point of difference was that while Byrne had proved himself worthy of the back-up slot at loosehead in Leinster, O'Sullivan in Ulster had become a shoo-in on the starting team.

O'Sullivan's progress has been remarkable. From being an afterthought in Leinster where he was turfed off the pathway post under 20s, he worked his way from Trinity's AIL team into Ulster's A side - and then took full advantage of injuries to Andy Warwick and Kyle McCall to get a start with the seniors. That senior debut was off the bench against Scarlets back in September, yet his form pushed him into the frame for the World Cup squad.

Joe Schmidt clearly wasn't using that as his key criterion in filling each of his 44 slots in the initial squad, announced last week. How could you possibly claim McGrath is in a better place than O'Sullivan? But if Malcolm Gladwell gave us the 10,000 hours theory as the essential travel guide to expert status then the Ireland coach has his own version. Basically he doesn't want to pick any player in a Six Nations or World Cup squad who hasn't been around the camp long enough to know the ropes as laid out by him. And if he changes that policy he needs a compelling reason.

This is not to say that O'Sullivan is out of the running yet. With four games to play before they get on the plane for Japan, any number of things can change. And at least he is next in line if that something affects a loosehead prop. The prop roster will include two on each side with a fifth who can cover tight and loose. Clearly O'Sullivan doesn't yet fit those five slots, but if injury gets him a ticket he will prove his worth.

Elsewhere, the selection of Jean Kleyn over Quinn Roux was greeted with surprise in some quarters but was simplified by two things: the Connacht second row had the end of his season cut short by what seems to be a debilitating virus; and Schmidt has been an admirer of what Kleyn brings to the table since the South African started bulldozing for Munster. And Schmidt wouldn't have admitted to rating Kleyn if the logistics around his qualification on residency grounds didn't work out.

His inclusion makes second row the most competitive area of the squad, and deleting names from there will be tougher than anywhere else. Still, Kleyn and Ultan Dillane will be in the firing line when Schmidt needs to drop some bodies.

There are another bunch who know they are along to make up the numbers over the summer. You wonder, for example, how Tommy O'Donnell reacts when he sees Joe Schmidt's name pop up on his phone. If it's good news then it's short-lived. Mike Haley, John Cooney, Rory Scannell and Ross Byrne are short odds too for an early exit. The comfort is in knowing that pretty much all of those left behind when 44 becomes 31 are high quality. And the odd uncapped extra, like Eric O'Sullivan, is in the same category.

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