Thursday 14 December 2017

Schmidt down to bare bones for Baa-Baas test

Robbie Henshaw, scoring his try against England, may be the only representative of the Six Nations champions to feature against the Barbarians
Robbie Henshaw, scoring his try against England, may be the only representative of the Six Nations champions to feature against the Barbarians
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is bracing himself for a selection headache ahead of his side's clash with the Barbarians in Thomond Park next month as he anxiously awaits the fate of the provinces in the concluding stages of the Pro12.

As the Barbarians added renowned attacking trio David Smith, Joe Rokocoko and Rene Ranger to their squad for the May 28 game yesterday, Schmidt admits that his selection may well be compromised by the absence of many of his leading stars playing with their provinces.

Indeed, in the unlikely event that Leinster's alarming slump dragged them into a Champions Cup play-off round robin, they could join potential Pro12 finalists Munster and Ulster in having to pull their players from the fixture.

Or, in a development that would be somewhat ironic given the much-trumpeted carpeting of Matt O'Connor last week, Schmidt could end up helming a green XV dominated by Leinster players.

Jonathan Sexton will also be unavailable as the fixture does not fall within World Rugby's accepted international window, so Robbie Henshaw could conceivably be the only representative of the Six Nations champions to feature in Limerick.

Pragmatic

"One of the really pragmatic things was to get everyone to finish at the same time and for everyone to get the same four weeks off so that people will have had some rugby right up to that point," said Schmidt of a fixture which at the moment seems to be causing unnecessary disruption.

It doesn't seem to have caught the public's imagination either as two-for-one ticket offers have once again been launched this week, months after the initial cut-price deals were announced.

"For us it was a chance to get a little bit of continuity in that if it is two Irish teams then we will have the other two teams available to us," added Schmidt, who will not be able to finalise his squad until less than a week before the game as the Pro12 semi-finals take place the previous weekend.

"Conceivably there could be three Irish teams in the mix, you could have Connacht playing off.

"That could mean that we would just have that one team, so we would work with that one team so they could finish at the same time. It was as much of that as anything else.

"It is why the team will come together on a Tuesday night and play the Thursday night. It is a very truncated preparation window. Also because we don't know who we are going to be able to select until after those semi-finals the previous weekend.

"One of the really good things about it is it will be an opportunity to probably broaden a little bit the playing base and work with some players who we might have time to get to know."

Former Australia coach Robbie Deans will certainly try to entertain whatever crowd does show up given his addition of three of the sport's most renowned attacking talents.

Smith, who leaves double European Champions Cup winners Toulon at the end of this season, is the leading scorer in France's Top 14 this term with 13 tries in 14 appearances.

He is back in a Barbarians shirt for the first time since 2010 when he made his debut at Thomond Park in the 29-23 win against Ireland and he also scored in the 35-26 defeat against England.

Rokocoko scored 46 tries in his 68 Tests for New Zealand and has appeared for the Barbarians six times, including the wins over South Africa (2007 and 2010) and the All Blacks (2009).

Ranger made a dazzling Barbarians debut last season in the 39-29 win against a young England XV. He is due to return to the Blues in 2016 after a two-season spell in France.

Australia fly-half Berrick Barnes, Argentina scrum-half Tomas Cubelli and New Zealand's George Whitelock were confirmed as members of the squad earlier this year and significant international names will be added in the coming weeks.

Exciting

Former Australia coach Deans said: "The chance to combine the attacking talents of players like David Smith, Joe Rokocoko and Rene Ranger in one team is an exciting opportunity.

"All three are quality performers and it's a testament to the standing of the Barbarians that they are able to bring them together. They'll enjoy training and playing together and I'm sure supporters in Ireland and England will enjoy watching them."

The Barbarians will face an England XV at Twickenham three days after their Thomond Park date.

Former Ireland lock Donncha O'Callaghan believes the game will provide an interesting challenge regardless of the squad available to Schmidt, particularly as in their 125th year, the famous touring club will have a licence to thrill.

O'Callaghan played against the famous invitation side when Ireland were beaten 29-23 at Thomond Park five years ago - then helped the Barbarians beat a young England team 39-29 last summer - and he believes it will be a significant test for Schmidt's men.

"There's great excitement about the Ireland game all around the place and the Barbarians will be surprised how much Limerick will embrace them," said O'Callaghan.

"Five years ago the Munster supporters really bought into it. They wanted to see the Irish boys tested. We lost and there was a big cheer - it was confusing!

"The crowd will want to see the Barbarians play well and see how Ireland handle the pressure."

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