Thursday 19 April 2018

Schmidt vows to keep long-term options open in defence of harsh calls

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

JOE SCHMIDT believes that Ireland possess the ability to put doubt in the Australian minds tomorrow evening, but warned his new-look side that they will have to be at their best to defeat the increasingly impressive tourists.

The New Zealander pointed to the Wallabies' "upward spiral" since their Lions series defeat and the initial struggles under Ewen McKenzie, while he lavished praise on a backline he clearly admires.

But the Ireland coach has picked what he described as a "really good team" to take on a side ranked fourth in the world.

For the second successive week, Schmidt has made brave and unexpected calls in his team selection and admitted that he is trying to balance winning Test matches with developing the base of players available to him in the months and years to come as he learns from last season's injury nightmare.

"Australia are one of the world powers in international rugby. They are going to be incredibly tough to beat and we feel we have put a good team out against them," he said.

"It was a bit like last week as well. We felt that Samoa were ranked ahead of us, we made some calls that probably people didn't expect to be made but, again, if we don't do that then we get very narrow in our selection, and I think experience would tell us over the last two years we will be missing some of our players some of the time.

"The fact that Paul (O'Connell) and Brian (O'Driscoll) have not been on the same field in a Test jersey for two years – if that happens again then we have to try be as prepared as we can be."

Speaking earlier this week, former Ireland international Conor O'Shea reckoned that the Wallabies could be mentally brittle after a difficult season and said that if Ireland could create doubt in their minds early on at Lansdowne Road then they could come away with victory.

"There's always opportunities to create doubt," Schmidt said. "Even in the best teams in any sport, doubt can seep in if you come under pressure.

"At the same time, you get a sense when you're in a team that's on an upward spiral. That sense is a degree of confidence and excitement and that's a great blend to have as a group. I think most people are starting to see that in this Australian team, that there is a blend of excitement and confidence starting to exert itself.

"Even against the All Blacks... they've scored a lot of points against the All Blacks. They've conceded a lot but it's difficult to score that amount of points against an All Blacks side and they've regularly scored a couple of tries, even three tries against them without getting the victory. So their attacking prowess is pretty visible."

Schmidt caused some surprise by selecting Eoin Reddan and Luke Marshall ahead of Conor Murray and Gordon D'Arcy, while Devin Toner forces Mike McCarthy on to the bench as Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy return, and Stephen Archer and Robbie Henshaw come in as replacements.

The Connacht man's selection is perhaps the strongest indication yet of the coach's ruthless streak.

Most observers felt that Dave Kearney would push for a starting spot this weekend after marking his debut with two tries off the bench last week, but instead he'll watch from the stands as the highly rated Athlone native gets his chance to add to the caps he won on the tour to North America last summer.

When it was put to him that his selections would cause the squad to be on high alert in the weeks and months to come, Schmidt replied: "It is less high alert, it is more trying to grow the collective.

"Dave Kearney is incredibly unlucky. Dave did really well in parts of his game when on he came on, and there were couple of parts he didn't quite nail either.

"So, we are trying to balance that, not just match performance, but training performance as well. Robbie Henshaw is a guy that if we don't give him an opportunity now and we need him in the future, then we are less prepared.

"We have got to try get as prepared as we can be for what the future holds. As we saw last year there is a real risk in not having the opportunity to mix selection up a little bit while at the same time keeping selection strong."

It was another reminder of the reality of the new dawn that is breaking in Irish rugby and that this coach is like no other to have been at the helm of the national team. It will be fascinating to watch it unfold.

Irish Independent

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