Monday 16 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Five gone, nine more to go. Schmidt's default all about tried and trusted as race to Japan hots up'


Joe Schmidt must cut nine more players from squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt must cut nine more players from squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In his nine seasons on this island Joe Schmidt has developed a few default settings which can be recognised long before he trips the switch. We got one at the post-match press conference in Lansdowne Road last weekend when a Japanese journalist asked him what he made of the Brave Blossoms. Around the auditorium you could hear the sound of seatbelts being clicked into place as the coach revved the engines.

What was a Japanese journalist doing at an Ireland versus Italy Test match in Dublin? We'll be shadowed by a media team from the World Cup's host nation until it mobilises into an army as the tournament kicks off. Anyway, at a moment's notice Schmidt started rattling off the names of Japanese stars - he loves getting the pronunciation spot-on - as if they had just declared a warehouse worth of weapons grade plutonium.

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His other default comes into play at squad announcements. In this scenario when the training panel is being trimmed he waves off the extras - as they are being turfed overboard - as if their loss might cause the ship to sink. Able seaman Tommy O'Donnell, for example, is readying himself for a stellar mention before walking the plank soon.

Five players have already put down their tackle bags as the preparation ramps up for this World Cup. Nine will follow. Of the quintet already deemed surplus to requirements - backs Mike Haley, Rory Scannell and John Cooney, and forwards Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane - Cooney's omission caught most people by surprise.

It shouldn't have. When he was capped at the tail end of the tour to the US and Japan in 2017 there was a palpable sense of relief among the travelling media. He was, as the Aussies like to put it, the last cab off the rank. Waiting your turn for a spin when everyone else is out on the road, and the shift is about to end, must do bad things for your cortisol levels. No one wanted to write about a fella who had never got out of the traps.

Cooney was immensely relieved afterwards. He had been capped, and almost scored. Behind him was the consistent frustration of a series of shoulder surgeries combined with limited game time with Connacht. Ahead was a new start, with Ulster, and the chance of more runs in green. The Ulster bit has worked out very well for all concerned. The Ireland element never took off because Schmidt was wrapped up with his first choice trio of Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath. That Cooney, whose defensive game Schmidt questioned, had some experience for Ulster of switching from nine to 10 late in games didn't count for a whole lot.

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John Cooney during Ireland squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Bizarrely, by contrast, Joey Carbery's ancient history of having gone into the Leinster Academy with a nine on his back seemed to have been carrying more weight until last week's surgical intervention. His ankle injury has been good news for Jack Carty, for the notion of going to the show with only two 10s, both of whom have a dodgy injury profile, is a non-starter.

That reshuffle would mean three scrumhalves on the plane, which would be good news for Luke McGrath, who was in line to lose out. History would suggest that the third nine on a World Cup squad has a lot of time on his hands. It's an imperfect process.

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Rob Herring would agree. His first quarter departure last weekend was a text book case in crap timing. The next question is how much of a window he will see between now and D Day, given the need to get more marquee names in the field, pronto. That pressure to perform in artificial circumstances is unreal.

Is it credible to be deciding whether or not to select someone on the basis of one game - which was never going to comprise 80 minutes - in August, when the match preparation is not like the preamble to any November or Six Nations contest?

Joe Schmidt is famously detailed and cautious, so you wonder if Herring had enjoyed the best 60 minutes of his life against Italy would it have changed significantly the data bank the coach has built up on all the contenders at hooker. Schmidt knows Herring is very good: better around the field than the one-paced captain, Rory Best, and better serving the lineout. Where Best has it over all the others is the strength of his scrummaging, which earns him rave reviews from Greg Feek, and in gravitas. It's that presence, the ability to have a really positive affect on those around him, that has kept him in the team in Ulster.

Herring's mistake was in not recognising this earlier, and moving to Connacht. Yes, the road in Ulster is now clear for him, but it's seven years since he fetched up in Belfast, and two World Cups will have passed him by. Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell should join Best in Japan.

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Rory Best of Ireland during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

If Japan two years ago was the launching pad for John Cooney then it has a significance also in the career of Rhys Ruddock. Whereas the scrumhalf was worrying about ever getting on the field, the back rower was busy leading the team onto the same patch of land. The chances of something going arseways for an Ireland side minus its 10 Lions, plus a handful of unavailables, was reduced vastly simply by having Ruddock at the head of the herd.

Of the matchday squad that wrapped up that second test in Tokyo, 15 are either nailed on for this World Cup or very much in the mix. So, already a useful layer of experience has been prepared. Ruddock is in that number. Jean Kleyn's appearance, however, has clouded the picture. Suddenly Ruddock and Tadhg Beirne are scrapping over a seat at the table. Beirne has a better skill range than any forward in the country, so Ruddock should waylay Schmidt with match reports of his exploits across the back row, and not just number six. Then you have Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan in the same picture.

We would contend that Conan is the best number eight in the country. What CJ Stander had to buy soon after arriving here - a flatbed trailer to carry his sequence of man of the match awards - is something he could consider selling. He is selfless and utterly committed but he doesn't skittle folks the way he used to, and if he has a passing game we don't see much of it. Nevertheless he is locked-on. Unfortunately for Conan he needs pitch time to convince Schmidt he is over a season disrupted by injury, and is a better bet than Murphy.

Will Addison is in the same boat. And you'd imagine he'll soon be overboard. Yes, the coach added him to the training squad the moment Addison's rehab allowed, having had back surgery during the Six Nations, but he's a long time without rugby. If Schmidt is committed to bringing three outhalves who need to be minded can he afford a utility back woefully short of a gallop? Probably not.

In that scenario Chris Farrell would lose out too. That would be a shame for a man with lots to offer, but there will be further alterations before the flight is called. Joe Schmidt's history features selection of players he trusts, have been in his system long enough to take instruction, and are fit. For a man with tried and trusted defaults, there is no reason to think he'll deviate at this point.

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