Sunday 22 April 2018

Schmidt: Other 'alpha males' will emerge to fill Sexton void

Despite the injury withdrawals, Joe Schmidt still had something to smile about at yesterday’s pre-Tour press conference. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Despite the injury withdrawals, Joe Schmidt still had something to smile about at yesterday’s pre-Tour press conference. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ian Madigan. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Not easy this squad selection lark, is it?

Ireland coaches in both rugby and soccer - both of whom might not yet be sticking around beyond July - were roundly criticised in some quarters this week for conservative, ageing squad selections which flirted too much with potential crocks.

Whereas Martin O'Neill's particular choices were hardly causing too much in the way of vigorous bar stool debate, Schmidt's picks prompted much anger west of the Shannon, where a certain element of schadenfreude may have carried upon the warm wind yesterday.

Just days after overlooking the claims of Connacht's history-makers, a quadruple injury whammy forced the Kiwi to add both Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy to his squad as Leinster's Kearney brothers missed out.

There was good news too for Healy's rival at the top of the Pro12 try-scoring charts, Craig Gilroy, who benefited from the luckless Luke Fitzgerald's latest in a lengthening series of setbacks, while Ian Madigan, despite opting for French exile, will at least finish the last month of his IRFU contract in a green tracksuit.


Schmidt was keen once more to address the criticism of his initial selection - as well as a pointed rejoinder to the morning's suggestion that Rob Kearney had suffered his hamstring injury in contact during a reportedly hot and heavy training session.

"I'm not sure about the criticism because it is not at the forefront of my mind," said Schmidt, who will, like O'Neill, delay any decision about his future until his own summer expedition is concluded.

"If I'm distracted by that, then journalists become selectors - and I probably challenge them to do as much work working at the minutiae of what a player delivers on the pitch.

"Those players (O'Halloran and Healy) have done really well and are continuing to build. But in the Test arena, they are going to have to continue to build further. Because it is a whole different level and that is going to be a real challenge for those players. But that is exciting."

While the influx of Connacht's form players may arguably strengthen the group, the loss of Johnny Sexton is an incalculable blow, one arguably fatal to the lavishly optimistic hopes of this touring troupe as they seek to win a series on Springbok soil.

While Schmidt was at pains to point to Paddy Jackson's progression with Ulster in the latter half of the season, he can hardly claim credit for it after overlooking his claims in preference to the versatility of Madigan, a player who will be presumably exiled by the IRFU from next season, throughout the entire Six Nations series, not to mention his limited World Cup exposure.

And whatever about filling Sexton's boots, neither man is capable at this remove of providing an adequate replacement for his dominant presence on the field.

"One of the things you find when you do lose players who are very dominant in the group, other alpha males emerge and they help drive the group," counters Schmidt.

"I've no doubt that Paddy and Ian can both play that role because it is a pivotal position. It's a position where you've got to have to some degree a control of the team during the training and during the match so that the players know where they're going. I've no doubt that both of those players can do it well.

"The big advantage for Paddy is his form and regular game-time at the end of the season as opposed to Ian who hasn't had that opportunity.

"Those are the decisions that we'll make at the latest by Thursday, we'll try to give the 10 particularly an indication by Tuesday so that they get enough time in the saddle to really lead guys around."


Aside from this difficulty, the three-quarter line may face radical overhaul as Ireland face entering one of rugby's most daunting assignments with an injury toll now running into double figures.

One of the two first-choice centres will need to revert to full-back - Jared Payne or, given the Kiwi's greater defensive nous, more probably it will be Robbie Henshaw.

Irish Independent

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