Joe Schmidt's time to stick or twist
Our writers debate whether the Irish coach should make changes for Italy clash
Monday, March 9, 2009
Tomás O'Leary would soon celebrate the greatest day of his rugby life, but this particular morning was pretty near to being his worst.
The scrum-half remembers it feeling like a walk of shame to the headmaster's office in his school days. Ireland were 60pc of the way towards a Grand Slam, but suddenly, head coach Declan Kidney decided to alter his hitherto injury-free and mostly blemish-free panel for the first time.
O'Leary thought he was alone when Kidney invited him to, in his gently persuasive manner, to "have a little word."
Instead, as he lumbered morosely upon the carpeted luxury of Killiney's Fitzpatrick Hotel as if he were treading towards an electric chair, he espied Jamie Heaslip. Then Paddy Wallace. Then Jerry Flannery. This was a group culling. Kidney, of course, informed the quartet that they were neither being dropped nor rotated. The king of euphemism said they were "missing out."
One change would have been an ignoble message of unwarranted culpability; a sweep undoubtedly harnessed the squad dynamic so vividly ignited during the Enfield accord just a few weeks earlier.
Ireland – once again – would do enough to win in a tight game. Heaslip would come on for the unfortunately injured Denis Leamy and, pointedly, celebrate his crucial try against Scotland in such a manner that the referee was forced to refer it to the TMO. In making his point, Heaslip was unwittingly also reinforcing the coach's message and method. Ireland won the Grand Slam a week later.
WHY IT'S RIGHT TO FRESHEN TEAM NOW, ARGUES DAVID KELLY
Measure twice, cut once. That was the thought of the day pinned to the wall of the team room by Paddy 'Rala' O'Reilly back in 2009 when Kidney effected the seemingly cruellest of cuts before the penultimate leg of the Grand Slam.
A carpenter cannot afford to take any risks when he is carving wood; make a mistake and the entire piece is ruined. Hence, he must calculate carefully before the process of cutting commences.
This is the procedure which faces Joe Schmidt this week – always with a mindful commitment to maintaining excellence and quality throughout the process. Privately, he will have already made his decisions about team selection. The starting XV have already been informed of their duties, so too the prospective replacements.
There are hints of change already on the horizon. Paddy Jackson's seemingly greater involvement in the visible training sessions this week already hints at a change at out-half, while Peter O'Mahony's injury concern deems it a risk to unnecessarily plunge a player, one who admits to having no respect for his body, to commit further self-harm.
The decision to release Mike Ross to Leinster last week provided a further clue to the coach's thoughts; Martin Moore can easily start without providing any weakness to the front-row. A back-three switch is another possibility.
The perennial propaganda, spun by coaches and players, decrees that international rugby is a squad effort – no greater demonstration of the truth of this assertion could be displayed by transforming theory into practice.
If Schmidt really has confidence in his wider squad – and the retention of a clearly injured Johnny Sexton in Twickenham severely undermined those claims – then casting the net wider would surely reflect such a commitment. And it would have the added bonus of engendering renewed self-assurance among those players hitherto not afforded a starting place in a championship, where, much more often than not, Schmidt has trusted intimately in familiarity.
There are those who would argue that to alter the squad now would weaken the chances of Ireland winning the championship; instead, Ireland's philosophy should confidently seek to ensure that altering the squad strengthens their challenge.
Ireland will beat Italy, of that there is little doubt. The same cannot be said of the following week's fixture, particularly given Ireland's traditional weak-kneed aversion to the French in Paris.
Hence, a championship challenge will not be sustained if Ireland beat Italy and lose to France.
Thus, Schmidt needs to combine his twin team selections to afford him the best possible opportunity of winning the second game, not just the first.
These two games offer Ireland a dry run for the World Cup challenge that awaits in England next year – then, victory against the same two sides will ensure Ireland avoid New Zealand in a quarter-final.
In that sense, it is neither a nebulous concept to advocate change this week nor an admission that, as some would suggest, that somehow the Six Nations championship does not matter.
Adroitly selecting the appropriate lines of the team within which to shuffle personnel may actually provide a stronger platform to win the championship, not a weaker one.
Why not cater for World Cup planning while having the gumption to conceive a plan that also annexes this year's title? Any confidence gleaned would surely be a boon.
If Ireland cannot contemplate, with marginal alterations to their side, a defeat of a damaged and bruised Italy, then perhaps they are not deserving of a championship belt.
Having faith in renewed competition for places could, if anything, produce an even more forceful display as they seek to increase their points differential, compared to a side that, yet again, shows no changes.
One final thought.
With all the hoopla surrounding Brian O'Driscoll's farewell, a shuffling of the pack could remove some of the claustrophobic focus on him.
After all, as the great man so often reminds us, it is a squad game.
WE MUST SEIZE SIX NATIONS CHANCE – FUTURE CAN WAIT, SAYS RUAIDHRI O'CONNOR
WHEN you have won a competition 11 times in its 119-year history and just twice in your last 30 attempts, then any opportunity to capture it must be taken seriously.
The World Cup may be the modern pinnacle of international rugby, but lifting the Six Nations trophy this spring would be far more beneficial in September 2015 than resting experienced campaigners in the name of development with a title on the line.
The four-year cycle is important and Joe Schmidt is looking to build the pool of players available to him in England and Wales next year, but those long-term goals are secondary at this time of year; particularly when his side top the Six Nations table with two games to go.
While the New Zealander may have wanted to give a bit more game time to some of his less heralded charges, events have overtaken him.
Before the Championship began, the coach stated his ambition to use "30-odd" players and 23-25 as starters, but barring a complete change of heart, it appears likely that the starting figure at least will come in well under that target.
However, if he manages to guide his team to some silverware, then it will be long forgotten. Ireland don't win enough to pass up on trophies for the sake of lofty long-term ambitions.
Sure, Brian O'Driscoll for one won't be around come the World Cup, but there is little doubt that the core of the team will remain in place from now through to that tournament and the benefit of playing together in pressure situations will stand to them greatly.
A case for including the likes of Martin Moore, Jack McGrath, Paddy Jackson, Robbie Henshaw or Jordi Murphy can be made on its merits and all are good players in their own right, but the coaching team feel that those who have helped get them this far remain fresh after their breaks either side of the England game.
Beating Italy is not simply enough, the points difference needs to be in its rudest health heading to Paris.
The 17 starters who won at home to Scotland and Wales before losing so narrowly in Twickenham have done little to deserve missing out if fit and when 17 players remained in Belfast last week to train as those on the fringes of the squad got game time with their provinces, it looked pretty clear that wholesale changes were not on the cards.
The coaching team are likely to view that time together as highly beneficial, especially considering the level of detail needed to execute Ireland's game plan. Those coming back from injury, especially Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo, who sat out November, have missed out on the building blocks needed to learn the Schmidt way of playing.
Players learning on the job is not something the coach needs against a winless but talented Italy side.
As he will stress, the Azzurri caused Wales all sorts of problems in Cardiff, were moments away from beating Scotland and, despite the scoreline, gave a good account of themselves against France.
They may be bottom of the table, but they beat Ireland last season and must be respected as such.
Sure, Ireland should expect to win and have the talent to do so even without a front-liner or two, but there is also a need to keep the scoreboard under pressure, with the title likely to come down to points difference.
The way things have turned out, the clash with the Italians is effectively a cup semi-final that Ireland must negotiate to set up their grand finale in France. In any other sport or scenario, nobody would suggest using a must-win scenario to blood some new faces and broaden the base of experience.
The World Cup is undoubtedly important, but it is 18 months away now. The Six Nations, however, is there to be won and Ireland appear to have the team more than capable of doing it.
That opportunity is not to be sniffed at and, it certainly is not one to be sacrificed for the sake of some long-term goal. After that, let the development happen during the summer tour to Argentina. Right now, the chance to win is too great to ignore.