Schmidt lays down World Cup gauntlet
Ireland boss tells fringe men door is open to make impact, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
AS IRELAND celebrated their Six Nations success on Saturday, events in Tbilisi were having a knock-on effect for Joe Schmidt's team.
Romania's 22-9 defeat in the Georgian capital means they will fill the remaining gap in Pool D at next year's World Cup alongside France, Italy, Canada and Schmidt's side.
The coach spent part of January scoping out World Cup training venues. He has just 10 games between now and the beginning of the warm-ups to fine-tune his squad.
After appearing to settle on his first-choice starting XV from the New Zealand game on, the retirement of Brian O'Driscoll has created one void to fill, while increasing depth across the board has been focused on by the former Leinster coach.
Schmidt will use the summer tour of Argentina to spread the net wider, while the autumn internationals will continue that process.
Next year's Six Nations, however, will be all about defending the title which would act as a perfect springboard for the World Cup in England and Wales.
"They (the tour and the November Tests) are the five Test matches that will give us an opportunity to really get together a squad to defend the Six Nations now that we're in that position," he said at yesterday's post-championship debrief.
"For us, the Six Nations is massive. It is our annual tournament that we play in and that's the one we've got to be repeatedly good at.
"The World Cup is once every four years and it's got to be kept in mind because it is the peak. But, those five Six Nations Tests – the amount of pressure that exists in those tests – it is hard to go outside the players who are comfortable and in-form."
So, the message is clear to those outside the Six Nations-winning squad: now is your time. It remains a matter of who can force their way in and what areas are the priority.
THE GAPING HOLE AT NO 13
O'Driscoll's retirement leaves a huge void in the Irish set-up, but Schmidt admitted the advance notice allowed him to prepare for the eventuality.
Yesterday, the IRFU chose to highlight the outgoing legend's statistical impact on the Six Nations to re-emphasise how good he has been in his final season and filling those boots may have to be a collective effort.
Connacht's Robbie Henshaw would appear to be the front-runner for the No 13 jersey for the two Tests against the Pumas this summer, with Darren Cave needing a strong finish to the season.
Both men spent the last eight weeks shadowing O'Driscoll and working with the world's most capped player, but they will be looking over their shoulders at Jared Payne, who becomes Irish-qualified before the start of next season. The classy New Zealander will definitely come into Schmidt's plans.
Luke Fitzgerald has long been seen as a natural successor to his fellow Blackrock College man, but he needs an injury-free run and Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls are others with caps in the centre who may have a say.
This day was always going to come and Ireland were never going to have a like-for-like replacement, but Schmidt does have options and a little bit of time to try them out.
IMPROVING OUT-HALF BACK-UP
Ian Madigan did well after Jonathan Sexton's concussion last Saturday, but both he and Paddy Jackson appear to have some work to do before they have fully earned Schmidt's trust for big games.
"I thought Ian came on and did really well because what he did, he did very, very solidly and I'd have the same confidence about Paddy," he said yesterday, adding: "To get them game-time I think it would help."
Jackson, as Schmidt argued, gets plenty of starts with Ulster but lives under the protection of Ruan Pienaar, who also takes the kicks at goal in bigger games.
Madigan, meanwhile, has a job on his hands convincing Matt O'Connor that he is the main man at Leinster. The hardening of the ground and the consistent run of games ahead should help the 24-year-old given his style.
He saw off Jackson for the summer tour spots last season and wasn't able to kick on, but getting the nod for Saturday night's bench spot was a boost, as was his contribution in the closing stages.
Sexton's participation in Argentina remains in the balance, but given his increased fragility over the past 12 months, it is essential that Ireland develop a No 2 they trust they can rely on.
FINDING A BOLTER
Eighteen months out from the 2011 World Cup, Conor Murray was playing for Garryowen in the All-Ireland League.
That he ended up being one of Ireland's most important players at the tournament in New Zealand demonstrates how much can change between now and next autumn and Schmidt admitted he has his eye on a number of young players.
Admittedly, the name of the already capped and currently injured Stuart Olding came from the floor at yesterday's press conference along with Munster's bright hope JJ Hanrahan and Leinster's emerging tighthead Tadhg Furlong, but the coach wasn't about to dismiss any of the promising youngsters.
And he cited the example of 21-year-old Iain Henderson as somebody who has earned his trust at an early age.
"In our discussions, those three names have definitely come up," he said of Olding, Furlong and Hanrahan.
"I don't think that the circle is as tight as people perceive it to be. We would have discussed 55-60 names. We can't select that many, but they are part of the discussion. We're open-minded.
"Getting kids like that involved and growing their confidence at the level is really important. But, I think the window is still wide enough that that can still happen."
THE FORGOTTEN MEN
If you'd proposed Ireland winning the 2014 Six Nations without Stephen Ferris, Earls, Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan, Sean O'Brien, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Richardt Strauss, no one would have believed you.
Now, those players face a struggle to break into a squad filled with players who have bought into Schmidt's system and who've earned the trust of the coach.
Despite concerns about the length he faced out of the game, Ferris' return alongside O'Brien is arguably the most exciting, but each and every one of the players named above have experience and ability to add to the Irish squad.
"They're going to have to challenge themselves over the next two months to try and get their noses in front," Schmidt said.
Injuries will open doors, but it is a powerful place for the coach to be in – and one he will be looking to make the most of.
The pretenders to the O'Driscoll throne
Age: 20 Height: 6ft, 1in
Weight: 15st, 6lbs Caps: 3
We're going to need a bigger jersey. Henshaw may have shadowed O'Driscoll over November and through the Six Nations, but the Athlone native's size makes him a very different asset to the Irish set-up. Likely to get the nod on the summer tour to Argentina and needs to perform there with Jared Payne's naturalisation looming.
Age: 28 Height: 6ft, 2ins
Weight: 14st, 9lbs Caps: 0
An undoubted class act, the New Zealander is a sumptuous runner whose signing by Ulster and the IRFU was a real coup. Plays most of his rugby at full-back and is unlikely to usurp Rob Kearney, but there must be a place for his skillset and intelligence. Says outside centre is his favourite position.
Age: 26 Height: 6ft
Weight: 15st, 3lbs Caps: 5 (1 try)
Has been outspoken on his lack of opportunities after a career in O'Driscoll's shadow, but needs a big finishing kick to the season and a strong showing on the summer tour to convince Joe Schmidt of his merits. He'll be 27 by the time he touches down in Argentina and a return of just five caps is nowhere near where he wants to be.
Age: 26 Height: 6ft, 1in
Weight: 14st, 4lbs Caps: 27 (2 tries)
Long seen as a successor to his fellow Blackrock graduate, the 2009 Lion deserves a bit of luck after years of injury hell. Has spent most of his career on the wing, but looks to have the skillset and intelligence for the centre.
Age: 27 Height: 5ft, 11ins
Weight: 14st, 9lbs Caps: 26 (9 tries)
Ireland's inside centre for the last 20 minutes last Saturday began his career in the midfield and is a coach's dream, given his work ethic and versatility.
McFadden has won the majority of his Ireland caps on the wing or as a replacement, but is a trusted Schmidt lieutenant.
Age: 26 Height: 5ft, 10ins
Weight: 14st, 2lbs
Caps: 39 (12 tries)
Schmidt brought Earls into the fold before the French match as he returned from injury and he clearly is a fan of the Limerickman. Whether that is as a winger or in the centre remains to be seen, but the coach's ability to develop skills and the player's natural ability could be a potent combination.