Sunday 21 January 2018

Joe Schmidt finally gets ready to roll out his big guns

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

JOE SCHMIDT would prefer to forget Ireland's last defeat on home soil, even if you suspect Ryan Crotty and the All Blacks still haunt his dreams.

Since that day, the New Zealander has always been forced to mix and match, basing his team largely on the 15 men who almost pulled off a famous win, filling in for those ruled out by injury.

"We should ban it lads, you are not allowed say it anymore," he smiled grimly yesterday when the game was dredged from the archives, but still it remains the touch-point of his regime.

He has chipped away at the template and, while others have stepped up and added to his options like Six Nations heroes Andrew Trimble and Chris Henry, the likes of Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy have been missed when marked absent.

Although the centre pairing has been remodelled since Brian O'Driscoll's retirement, the template saw Ireland through an successful 2013 and they haven't been defeated at home since, despite a slew of injuries.

O'Brien has not played since, while Tommy Bowe and Healy have missed big chunks of action

Schmidt will never be able to call on O'Driscoll again, but yesterday he named the strongest match-day 23 since the last game of 2013.

Statement

By recalling Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip and O'Brien to his starting XV and adding Healy to his bench, Schmidt has made a statement - even if he played down the potential impact it might have had on Les Bleus.

It has often been said that the French don't know their best team, but Ireland's coach has a firm handle on his hierarchy and, injury permitting, he'll be pretty close to being able to go full whack against England in a fortnight's time.

Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe are mainstays, while Simon Zebo is the man in form and in possession of the No 11 shirt - one of the few positions that remains a little fluid given Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls are all sniffing around.

Schmidt has nailed his colours to the Robbie Henshaw-Jared Payne midfield axis, while Conor Murray and Sexton are the best half-back pairing in Europe.

Up front, no one has started more games under the New Zealander than Mike Ross and Rory Best, while Healy's return to fitness should see him take control of the No1 jersey. Until then, he'll ably support Jack McGrath.

The second-rows have been together for all of Schmidt's big games, while Peter O'Mahony, O'Brien and Heaslip are automatic choices when fit.

The bench could still do with a little work before it's at full strength, but remarkably, Schmidt (pictured below) has kept the show on the road to such an extent that O'Brien returns to a team that has lost just once since his last cap, claiming a Six Nations title and a November clean sweep along the way.

"It builds a little bit of confidence," the former Leinster supremo said of the return of his Lions. "They have been in some tough, tight moments before. They have been in some very successful moments as well, therefore their decision making, their leadership does add a bit of confidence.

"Hopefully it adds a bit of organisation as well. That's no disrespect - I thought Ian Keatley did a great job - but these guys, amongst the caps that they have amassed, those experiences have built a degree of confidence and a degree of organisation that become a little bit automated because they have been in situations before and have worked their way through them. . . or having not worked their way through them, learned from them.

Value

"Cian adds a bit of a dimension for the bench. I do think the bench is going to be massively tested by the size and strength of their bench, but I have got a heck of a lot of faith that our bench will add value."

Having these players for a concerted period of time through to the World Cup would be the ideal for Schmidt. If you were picking a team for Ireland's pool decider against tomorrow's opponents, it wouldn't be far off the one that starts this Six Nations clash - even if the head coach is not entertaining thoughts of September.

"Teams change," he said. "Even if the personnel are the same, the team develops over a period of time.

"The thing I most fear about the French is that they can change in 24 hours, they can change in two weeks.

"I think anyone who was at the World Cup last time in 2011 and watched France play Tonga gave them no chance of being in the final, let alone winning it. In the end, they were incredibly unlucky not to win it and probably deserved to.

"Whatever happens on Saturday, you can toss a coin, I don't think, even psychologically, it will offer much advantage to either team. It will be another day in September and either day will be very tough.

"We're very much focused on this week and if we can get a result then we stay in the hunt, and if we don't then it would be very hard to be at the top of the tree in six weeks' time."

Still avid watcher of French rugby, the coach is fully aware of what's coming down the tracks and while France may not arrive with the greatest form, Schmidt is full of admiration and just a little fear.

"Their individual abilities to beat us one-on-one, their individual abilities to physically dominate us. . . I don't just mean in the physical, confrontational manner. I mean to be able to physically beat us to the space with the footwork they have," he said of their threat.

"I had the luxury of coaching Wesley Fofana. I don't think there's many better than him in world rugby at being able to change an angle - whether it is taking a hard line and breaking a tackle or to take an out-line and skin a tackle.

"How do we contain (Mathieu) Bastareaud? The try Teddy Thomas scored against the Australians, that individuality. . . you can never rest against the French because they can pull a rabbit out of the hat.

"It is the same with (Damien) Chouly. The fact that he was on the end of that Pascal Pape pass last year, we were never going to catch him because he's an athlete. That's probably the greatest fear I have, because they have that talent."

Tomorrow, having boxed clever for a year to accommodate their absence, Schmidt gets to roll out his big guns. With a 5.0 kick-off and a full house, it promises to be an occasion to remember off the pitch as, on it, Ireland look to continue the impetus they gained against New Zealand and maintain their winning home record.

"That was unbelievable, that game," Schmidt reflected. "It was emotional, the cacophony of noise. It is something we want to re-earn every time we go out and play and the players want to demonstrate again that they merit the support they are getting.

"It has been an incredibly positive part of those results, it is almost a reciprocal arrangement, they give us a real ballast and we try to deliver a massive physical commitment."

Irish Independent

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