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Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'The case for experimentation: should the World Cup come first for Schmidt?'

Game Plan


Kearney: Facing full-back competition. Photo: Sportsfile

Kearney: Facing full-back competition. Photo: Sportsfile


Kearney: Facing full-back competition. Photo: Sportsfile

Regardless of what happens in the next 10 weeks, Joe Schmidt will finish his Six Nations career as one of the tournament's greatest coaches. Three titles in five years, with a Grand Slam in the mix, guarantees his legacy in the competition.

On Wednesday, he admitted he never envisaged being in charge for six seasons and essentially confirmed that the great unchecked box on his list is the World Cup.

Argentina in 2015 still gnaws at him and will continue to do so until Ireland get their shot at redemption on the weekend of October 19.

Everything Schmidt does between now and then is building towards Japan and a bid to go further than any Irish team has done at a World Cup.

He has been relentlessly future-proofing his team for four seasons, introducing new faces and evolving the game-plan so that when they touch down in Tokyo next autumn they will be primed to perform.

He named 38 players in his squad and name-checked a further 30 to keep his net cast wide but when the time comes he can only take 31 to Japan. A number of players in that final squad will be covering multiple positions, while the schedule will demand rotation.

And there is a limited window in which Schmidt can find out more about his players by pressing them into service.

The four World Cup warm-ups are of dubious value, but the next five games offer a real opportunity to experiment in the white heat of championship rugby.

Given its importance to the bottom line and the special place it holds in the sporting landscape here, winning the Six Nations has always been the big target for any Irish coach.

In his final season and with so much credit in the bank, Schmidt is poised to take some risks.

The schedule will demand rotation and the natural jumping-off point for a couple of changes, Italy, comes at an awkward time - in the middle of the rest weeks.

With England first up and a World Cup dress-rehearsal against Scotland seven days later the stakes are high, but the head coach may feel that it is the perfect time to gamble.

Who, one wonders, has been training in the full-back slot in Portugal this week?

With Rob Kearney in Dublin preparing for the Scarlets tonight, Jordan Larmour, Will Addison and potentially Robbie Henshaw could be getting a run.

In 2014, when the country wondered who Schmidt would pick between Jared Payne and Henshaw, he was trialling them as a pairing.

The big debate going into this Six Nations is who will start at centre with Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell all fit.

Aki and Ringrose are the incumbents after beating the All Blacks, so perhaps the answer is to play the Athlone native in his favourite position - or even name him as No 23, covering the three positions.

Another option could be to play Larmour or Addison to expose them to the level.

Kearney remains first-choice but if he goes down at the World Cup there is a drop off in experience below him.

Given the time of the year and the potential for tricky positions, there is a very strong argument for starting the experienced Louth man, whose back-field security, communication and aerial ability are unmatched.

But at some stage in the next five matches there is a case for having a look at one of his rivals.

The other area of potential experimentation is out-half.

Schmidt started Joey Carbery at No 10 against Australia during the summer and having impressed for Munster in recent weeks, there is an argument for giving him at least two games in this tournament.

That might not go down too well with the team's vice-captain Johnny Sexton, who comes into the Six Nations under an injury cloud, but if the 33-year-old goes down in the week of a quarter-final then his understudy needs to be ready.

Schmidt will use his bench to build experience, but it will be interesting to see how many selection risks he takes in an attempt to build towards the autumn.

As he said this week, there is a danger of losing momentum if the team go off the rails during the next two months but there is also a risk in picking the same players in the same positions and hoping for the best.

The coach has gotten that balance spot on in the three years to this point.

His next move will be fascinating to observe.

Irish Independent