Tuesday 21 August 2018

Tony Ward: Joe Schmidt's balanced vision is taking Ireland to new levels

Building on concrete foundations has allowed the man at the helm to cleverly develop a near embarrassment of riches

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Jack Conan’s work ethic is on par with CJ Stander or Jamie Heaslip. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Over the three-week period when the Springboks, Fijians and Pumas came to town, Joe Schmidt experimented with 29 different players in his starting line-up. That is as it should be given the accepted mid-series opportunity to give the shadow or Wolfhounds XV a run.

In the games of most consequence, against South Africa and Argentina, there were but three changes with two by design. Adam Byrne came in on the right wing for a first start ahead of the outstanding man of the match against the 'Boks Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell replaced the lame Robbie Henshaw while James Ryan continued his remarkable rise alongside Iain Henderson instead of Devin Toner in the second-row.

It was a typically prudent use of ever-growing resources by the man at the helm. As one brought up on the reality of Irish rugby where of necessity we lived in the here and now and picked our representative teams accordingly, this is a massive shift in emphasis.

The challenge for Schmidt is of course getting the balance between picking a team with the strength and ability to seize the day yet at the same time planning that little bit further down the road.

So while taking a clean sweep in the three-Test Guinness November series would have been at the top of the agenda, rest assured the upcoming Six Nations working towards Japan 2019 would have been very much to the fore in his mind. That, I repeat, is a new departure and a very definite reflection as to where Schmidt has taken the side since taking control.

Both Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney contributed significantly to the foundation but our treasured Antipodean coach has taken it to another level. The 2018 Six Nations will present a massive challenge given that we start in Paris and finish in London with a couple of feisty Tests on our home patch in between. Had the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown started in December and not February, I would suggest a match-day 23 in the head coach's mind along the following lines: R Kearney; A Conway, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (c), T Furlong; I Henders#on, D Toner; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien and CJ Stander with likely replacements: J Tracy, J McGrath, John Ryan, James Ryan, J Conan or J van der Flier, K Marmion, I Keatley and K Earls.

Critical

With Rhys Ruddock (along with Joey Carbery) most likely ruled out, the back-row forward replacement role is critical while Earls - despite injury - will have to come back into the mix either as a starter on the right or as a possible replacement depending on the needs at full-back. Jared Payne appears highly unlikely to be involved so in addition to Conway, Jacob Stockdale looks the most obvious winner from the November series.

But there were others to put up their hands and in almost every case that has been substantiated by provincial form in the back-to-back Champions Cup matches since.

In no particular order we're talking about centres Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell, prop Dave Kilcoyne, lock Ryan, No 8 Conan as well as backs Luke McGrath, Keatley and Darren Sweetnam. And although he was not involved in the autumn, I will add the name Seán Cronin.

Let us look at each accordingly. In midfield, Connacht's favourite adopted Kiwi had as expected a hugely accomplished maiden run against the South Africans. It was nothing we hadn't anticipated as he is that good and instantly influential.

His second run against the Pumas was a little less fluid with new midfield partner Farrell by far the more impressive on the day. I was working on commentary alongside Ulster centre Darren Cave and he mentioned to me beforehand to watch out for Farrell's distribution.

The big centre's ability to vary the weight of pass, short or long, off either side is close to invaluable in the modern game of claustrophobic defending. It is an element to his game that certainly had not been to the fore for Munster in his limited appearances to that point. By contrast, the otherwise outstanding Aki came up a little short in that key respect at this level on that day. More questions than answers perhaps but, whatever else, Farrell was and is now a serious contender.

So too Sweetnam on the Ireland right, although I think it a fair reflection on Felix Jones and Munster that being a first choice is no longer a given with Alex Wootton now in the frame alongside Simon Zebo, Earls and Conway. That said, Sweetnam looked ever so comfortable at the highest level and makes for a physically big natural pairing with Stockdale on the right and left respectively. A bit early for comparisons with Alex Cuthbert and George North at their best for Wales perhaps, but in terms of potential and similarity the parallel holds.

At the coal face, James Ryan looks to the manner born. He is still feeling his way but much like Paul O'Connell in his time the feeling is of small steps with giant ones to follow. Expect him to make the match-day cut.

There too should be former Ard Scoil Rís stalwart Kilcoyne. While all the talk is whether it will be either Lion, Healy or McGrath, the first name on Schmidt's sheet to face France - Kilcoyne is moving ever closer to the onset of a three-prop battle.

He, Stephen Archer and John Ryan are now to Munster what Healy, McGrath and Tadhg Furlong are to Leinster - a near embarrassment of riches. In the back-to-back wins over Leicester, Kilcoyne was a colossus and part of a scrum that more than matched the Tigers where they are traditionally strongest, while in the loose he is a natural wrecking ball who knows but one path from A to B.

We are also richly endowed at hooker but here is one of the few areas in which I differ with Schmidt and by extension Simon Easterby and Greg Feek. Best is the captain supreme and no argument there, but, as an impact replacement, Seán Cronin is as close to perfection as is possible in that role.

Perhaps there is some technical reason for his continued omission but for me Cronin would be a nailed on certainty for a mid-match role off the bench.

And what of Conan the Barbarian? I use that name deliberately because I detect a perception of Jack being more about carrying and racing in for tries, whether wearing six or eight, from 50 metres and more. Nothing could be further from the truth as the Exeter games illustrated fully. Conan's work ethic, particularly off the ball, is on a par with both CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip at their very best. He is more than worth a place in the 23.

Our back-row combination is as good and as finely balanced as any other combination in world rugby and I have no issue with O'Mahony, O'Brien and Stander lining out in those positions against France but Conan (save for the need for a specialist openside a la Van der Flier in reserve) should be a shoo-in on current form for the match-day squad. Against Exeter and Leicester, both No 8s were superb.

The one final name I would add is Luke McGrath. He is on fire for Leinster and edging Kieran Marmion as shadow to the incomparable Murray.

Has Irish rugby ever been in better shape?

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