Sunday 18 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: Seven-week itch will force Joe Schmidt to show a little of his hand

 

'Schmidt and his coaches have been meeting regularly to discuss their selection picture' Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
'Schmidt and his coaches have been meeting regularly to discuss their selection picture' Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

In 50 days' time, the nation will be up nice and early to tune into Ireland's World Cup opener against Scotland from Yokohama.

Between now and then, Joe Schmidt will whittle the 45-man squad - that assembles tomorrow at Carton House to begin their preparations for their first warm-up game against Italy - down to 31.

Having done everything in their power to keep their profile low so far, this week will force them into the open.

Certainly, it will force the coach to show his hand just a little bit as he balances the need for match sharpness with a desire to cast a glance at his selection options.

A look at his strategy in 2015 is instructive. Schmidt used 41 players across his four games before the tournament in England and Wales, mixing and matching across games against Wales, Scotland and Wales again before finishing with close to his strongest team at Twickenham.

Only Richardt Strauss and Eoin Reddan featured in all four games, while eight players played in just one of the four fixtures and, of those, Rob Kearney was the sole survivor in the final 31-man squad.

The schedule is different this time. Four years ago, the schedule was laid out with two games in a fortnight, a week's break, and another two games.

This time, Ireland play Italy and then head to Portugal for a warm-weather camp before playing England and Wales twice in three successive weekends before departing for Japan.

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That may persuade Schmidt to alter his approach when it comes to using his resources in the coming weeks.

The coach has been building towards this tournament for four years and will have most of the 31 names pencilled in.

Still, rugby being rugby, injury will play a role and there is still scope for players to put doubt in the coach's mind with their performances in the coming month.

THE SKIPPER

Captain on some of the team's greatest days, Rory Best is primed to sign off on a stellar career with one last push for glory at his fourth World Cup.

The Ulsterman turns 37 on Thursday week and has been plagued with hamstring and ankle problems over the past two seasons.

During that time, his performances have deviated from the consistent standards he set in the early years of his captaincy.

Schmidt values his calm, assured leadership and his rapport with referees.

He has steered the ship for the entire cycle and is almost certain to lead the team to Japan, but a bad day at the office, particularly out of touch, could create some doubt in Schmidt's mind with Niall Scannell, Seán Cronin and Rob Herring snapping at his heels.

Gordon D'Arcy found out in the 2015 warm-ups that fairytale endings are far from guaranteed. Best will be hoping Father Time holds off another few weeks.

BATTLE OF THE BACK-UPS

Schmidt and his coaches have been meeting regularly to discuss their selection picture and one of the key considerations will be the number of half-backs to bring.

Last time out, he brought three out-halves and two scrum-halves with Ian Madigan covering the No 9 slot.

When he lost Jared Payne to injury, he called Isaac Boss up before the quarter-final to make it three and three. This time around his reserves will be on the other side of the world. He may be tempted to bring six half-backs. That still means leaving two of the current 45-man panel in Ireland.

With Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery guaranteed to go and in need of game-time to get up and running, the focus will shift to No 10s Jack Carty and Ross Byrne, and No 9s Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath.

Schmidt must balance the need to get his starting halves into form after a tough Six Nations with giving the potential back-ups time on the pitch.

Much will come down to their work on the training ground where Carty impressed the coaches during the Six Nations and starts ahead of Byrne.

The three scrum-halves are neck and neck. Cooney's capacity to cover out-half and kick goals is an extra string to his bow that sets him apart.

Marmion has the trust of the coach after starting a number of big games in Murray's absence, while McGrath has been consistently excellent for Leinster and has a strong partnership with Sexton.

The scrum-half battle will go down to the wire.

THE GIFT OF VERSATILITY

These are nervous times for those players on the cut-line who only cover one position. When squads are being picked, versatility is your friend.

The big squeeze is coming in the outside backs and the back-five of the scrum, with Ulster pair Jordi Murphy and Will Addison looking like strong contenders to make the plane given the number of positions they can cover.

Schmidt has complained about the limitations the 31-man squad places on his selection and a character like Addison, who can cover the centre and back-three may make him a more attractive option than Andrew Conway or Chris Farrell and allow Schmidt to pick more half-backs.

The absence of Dan Leavy and Seán O'Brien has put the squeeze on the back-row, but some good players face being left behind. In a straight shoot-out with Tommy O'Donnell and Rhys Ruddock, Murphy's capacity to play in all three positions could earn him the nod.

Likewise, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson's capacity to slip back into the blindside slot is an asset as they compete against Ultan Dillane and new boy Jean Kleyn, while tighthead props Finlay Bealham, John Ryan and Andrew Porter will all be reminding scrum coach Greg Feek that they've played senior rugby on the loosehead side.

Watch for any of them moving across the scrum this month.

MCGRATH'S LAST STAND

The reason that versatility will be valuable is that Schmidt took two looseheads to England four years ago and is likely to do the same again.

Back then, Jack McGrath was a shoo-in, but the three-Test Lion endured a poor season last time out and starts playing catch-up to the imperious Cian Healy and Munster's in-form starter Dave Kilcoyne.

The St Mary's man is determined to delay his arrival in Ulster until after the World Cup and will be targeting some big performances in the next couple of weeks.

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