Wednesday 22 November 2017

Missing Munster stars will play big part in Six Nations

Schmidt has stuck with the squad he knows for opener but will shuffle pack if need arises

Tommy O'Donnell will be hoping to get his chance for Ireland at No 7 against Scotland
Tommy O'Donnell will be hoping to get his chance for Ireland at No 7 against Scotland

Denis Leamy

I think Joe Schmidt is taking a leaf out of Warren Gatland's book and has selected his Irish squad the same way as the Lions management did last summer.

There is a big Leinster contingent in the squad for his first Six Nations but I think Schmidt is, for now, going with the players who he has worked most closely with.

Gatland did the same during the summer – he went with a big Welsh contingent who he knew understood how to deliver his style of play and supplemented them with the cream from other countries.

I think Schmidt is doing something very similar and I think you will see more Munster and other players coming into the frame after the opening two games.

It is a very tight schedule for Ireland to start with, two home games in six days. You have got to deliver in those games and Schmidt knows that. He is now under the spotlight on the international stage and it is a huge jump up.

He will be expected to win on Sunday and again the following Saturday so it doesn't surprise me that he has gone with Leinster fellas who he has worked closely with and who understand his style of play and how to deliver it.

The likes of Simon Zebo, Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin must be very disappointed not to be included but I think their opportunity will come.

Zebo's exclusion, having been on the Lions last summer, is probably down to lack of game-time through injury but it was a surprise then that he did not start for the Wolfhounds last Saturday.

DISGRUNTLED

But it is not just Munster players who might feel a bit disgruntled they didn't make the cut. You look at the likes of Craig Gilroy who burst on the scene but is now outside the loop. But I think he too is a player who will come back in when Schmidt widens the circle after these two opening games.

That's the only way of explaining how the likes of Jack McGrath and Martin Moore, who are the understudies to Cian Healy and Mike Ross in Leinster, have been preferred to the likes of Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer, who are regular starters for Munster.

Luke Fitzgerald, who has had so many battles with injury, is playing superbly at the moment and Schmidt has worked with him and that probably tilted that wing position ahead of Zebo and Gilroy.

I think Ireland will beat Scotland and I think Schmidt believes he has selected a group that will do that.

I do hope he goes with Tommy O'Donnell at seven and does not switch Peter O'Mahony from six. O'Donnell was superb for the Wolfhounds and he has a more rounded game than Chris Henry at the moment. That will be a tight call but I hope he goes with an out-and-out seven and does not move O'Mahony and draft in the likes of Rhys Ruddock.

Ruddock, as he showed against England Saxons, is playing superb rugby and would be able to replace O'Mahony at six, but I think Schmidt needs to avoid moving fellas around the back-row.

Speaking of the back-row, I was very impressed with the display of Robin Copeland for the Wolfhounds on Saturday. He made a few early mistakes but quickly put them behind him and delivered a big display.

Munster fans will like what they saw in Copeland last weekend and he looks like a shrewd signing, a good spot by Munster. He seems very flexible and looked very good in open spaces.

He is likely to see action in the Six Nations and will be coming to Munster next season with international game-time under his belt.

The big question this weekend is whether Ireland can continue on from the form they showed against the All Blacks. A continuation of that momentum will take them past Scotland. At the moment Ireland are something like 11/2 for the Six Nations and that's a good bet given how open the competition is this season.

These opening two games hold the key. Two wins would inject huge confidence. It would give Schmidt a solid footing and allow him open the group and start developing a squad for the World Cup next season.

But so much hinges on these opening two games and that's why you can understand why Schmidt has put so much faith in the guys he has worked with and who he knows understand the way he wants to play.

I think it is also an indication of the amount of talent there is at the moment that there are so many options for every position.

But it all comes down to winning games and anything other than a win over Scotland on Sunday will be a disaster.

However, I really can't see that disaster happening.

Irish Independent

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