Monday 23 October 2017

Nonsense to suggest Schmidt shows any bias

Munster head coach Rob Penney, left, and backs coach Simon Mannix
Munster head coach Rob Penney, left, and backs coach Simon Mannix
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Now that the tournament autopsy is pretty much complete, it's time to turn our attention to the biggest derby in world rugby – Leinster versus Munster in the Pro12, a week today. It will be almost certainly be first versus second.

And while I don't always agree with Munster coach Rob Penney's take on things, I felt he captured the mood in the Reds camp when he suggested his side are gearing up "to face the Six Nations champions" at the Aviva.

His jokey line was preferable to all the insensitively timed rabble-rousing we have heard in recent weeks.


To suggest that Joe Schmidt, Declan Kidney, Eddie O'Sullivan, Warren Gatland or any other professional coach would pick a national squad based on place of birth or team label is utter nonsense, something I find impossible to comprehend.

It is difficult for players of this generation to even grasp what political deviousness and selection skullduggery actually are, given the transparency at the nub of the modern game.

What coach is going to jeopardise his career through picking players he knows not to be the best at his disposal?

There is, too, another factor which specifically applies to Schmidt, and that is the type of player he picks to suit his strategy based on the make-up of the opposition.

In other words, what is patently obvious is that Ireland are lucky enough to have a coach who assesses the opposition, devises a plan to beat them and then at that stage picks the players best suited to seeing that strategy through.

And there is another factor coming through loud and clear from the players, and that is the competitiveness that takes place in training, whereby Schmidt, Les Kiss and John Plumtree assess form on the training field and then assemble the match-day 23 accordingly.

In other words, players are genuinely playing for that green shirt right up to the 11th hour prior to selection.

When I played – albeit in an amateur age – we had a cowboy system, whereby five selectors – two from Leinster, two from Ulster and one from Munster, aided and abetted by two sub-selectors (including the token Connacht rep) – did their political bartering and wheeler-dealing under the guise of democracy and fair play.

It was anything but as self-preservation – consolidation within the so-called 'Big Five' – underpinned this putrid 'alickadoo' system.

So it beggars belief to hear suggestions that these days, an Ireland coach would undermine his own chances of success with selectorial bias.

If Schmidt picks a squad to face the Springboks in November – the summer series in Argentina will require a different set of selection criteria – and all 23 come from Montenotte or the Aran Islands, then so be it.

It matters not a whit where they come from – provided they are the best players in the best form fitting the desired strategy as decreed by the head coach at that point in time.

Please let this be the last time I need address this popularity-seeking, parochial bar-stool drivel again.

For the record, at the start of the tournament, I would have had Donnacha Ryan nailed down alongside Paul O'Connell in the second-row and Keith Earls on the right wing in the absence of the long-term injured Tommy Bowe. Simon Zebo, too, would have been in a toss-up with Luke Fitzgerald for a place on the left wing.


But other factors came into play and Schmidt chose to develop qualities he saw in Devin Toner, Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney and Chris Henry (in place of the injured Sean O'Brien).

I still believe that Bowe, Ryan, Earls, Fitzgerald, O'Brien (possibly Stephen Ferris, too) and Zebo will be close to first-up selection come the autumn – for the simple reason they are too good not to be.

But would I drop one from Toner, Trimble, Kearney or Henry were Ireland playing again next week? No.

The public must trust Schmidt every bit as much as he trusts the players he selects to play the game his way – and pas much as this group of players trust in him.

It was really heartening to hear David Kilcoyne talking honestly in his column in the 'Munster Rugby' section for this newspaper about the conversations he has had with Schmidt, whereby the man who decides his fate at the highest level makes it clear what the Munster prop must do to improve and challenge Cian Healy and Jack McGrath for a place in the national set-up.

Rest assured that if Kilcoyne delivers, then Schmidt will honour his part – not because the player is from Limerick, but because he is best equipped to do the propping business at that point in time.

Ireland have just won the Six Nations for only the second time, not because 15 of the 23-man match-day squad in Paris play for Leinster, but because a scrupulously honest management team picked the best players to do the best job.

Selection cronyism is a thing of the past. For the sake of Irish rugby, can we leave it just there – and that's coming from someone who wore blue and red and for sure suffered at the hands of the 'green system' in his time.

Penney has his pre-match script for the Aviva already written and were I in his position, I would do precisely the same.

It's a case of 'us versus the world' – but it's hypothetical and very far removed from reality, but as one central to that siege mentality in my time when wearing red, I know what it triggers.

Bring it on.

Irish Independent

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