Sport Rugby

Monday 18 December 2017

Schmidt's support cast all set for audition night

Fringe men's Test futures could hinge on Wolfhounds clash

Leinster's Jack McGrath
Leinster's Jack McGrath
Munster's Tommy O'Donnell
Robbie Henshaw of Connacht
David Kelly

David Kelly

The Ireland squad splintered yesterday after an intensive two-day session at Carton House. From the predictable photo shoots to the conceited video conferences delivered to fans via Irish rugby's in-house media service, it resembles a holiday camp rather than a boot camp.

However, appearances, especially those controlled with almost Orwellian fervour by the IRFU, can be notoriously deceptive.

Behind closed doors, the build-up to the Six Nations opener against Scotland on Sunday week is fuelled by an intensity from the coaching staff that is matched by limitless enthusiasm from the now 45-man squad.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has been running an eye over the candidates seeking a berth in his opening 23-man squad. Most of those names are readily identifiable, but, as he reiterated this week, the creation of a significant depth of talent beneath his first-choice squad is also a primary concern.

As he demonstrated with Leinster, he wants to be able to trust in any player at any time to fill in for his front-line squad; otherwise, they will be surplus to requirements.

As his erstwhile Leinster players will know, Schmidt can be ruthless in his assessment of a player's usefulness. hence, this week, the competition will be deadly serious as fringe players seek to impress.

With an eye towards 2015 and blissfully free of the interminably useless review with IRFu officials - virtually a pre-condition of the coach's employment - Schmidt will seek to deploy his squad depth as early as this Six Nations.

There will be some hair-raising calls. as he did so successfully with Leinster, Schmidt will deploy different players to suit different opposition and conditions. If he wants the freedom to rotate, he must trust all his players implicitly.

Tomorrow's team announcement and Saturday's Ireland Wolfhounds clash with England Saxons at Kingsholm may not excite Irish sports fans, but for some players, the next few days are crucial.

PROP IDOLS

Cian Healy's miraculous return from injury was welcome; he remains indispensable to Ireland's hopes, even if there is a queue of raucous young talent jostling behind him.

On the other side, Mike Ross has become less dispensable thanks to the new scrum engagement.

Schmidt's task is to identify the most effective back-ups on either side; 14 months after the Michael Bent farce, it is instructive to notice how many of them there really are on both sides.

Jack McGrath appears to be the leading candidate on the loosehead side, benefiting, as others clearly will, from an intimate working relationship with Schmidt, but his form is a much more persuasive ally.

Schmidt seems less convinced as to Dave Kilcoyne's effectiveness and, if he starts on the bench this weekend, it will reflect the distance that he needs to cover in order to eclipse McGrath from the Scotland reckoning.

In line with Schmidt's enlightened selection policy, tighthead Martin Moore will start at least one game in this championship, if not more, with the luckless Declan Fitzpatrick challenging when fully recovered from concussion.

WAITING IN THE WINGS

Schmidt has always craved the prospect of dovetailing with a fully fit and in-form Luke Fitzgerald; he has got that wish, at least, and the prospect should make Ireland supporters salivate.

The other starting slot - before Keith Earls' unfortunate injury, he was clearly the leading candidate - will spark a fascinating tussle.

Contenders can play themselves in or out of the Scotland squad in the 'A' international this weekend.

Schmidt still hasn't provided a satisfactory explanation as to why Simon Zebo was initially excluded from this squad - the coach claimed that it was to receive further game-time with his province.

Zebo had featured for Munster before the squad was announced - however, Fergus McFadden, who hasn't played any rugby since November's broken hand against Australia, was included.

This uncharacteristic eccentricity aside, McFadden is the one who clearly needs to impress in terms of fitness this weekend - otherwise, one might suggest that Dave Kearney remains ahead in the pecking order.

Zebo and Craig Gilroy - the latter also curiously excluded from the initial squad - are both nominally left-wingers, but they also share an attacking zest that fits in with Schmidt's philosophy. Whether they can fulfil his defensive remit and his specific instructions at every breakdown will also be a determining factor.

Andrew Trimble remains a dark horse as he resembles the photo-fit of the type of winger preferred by the Kiwi.

BACK-ROW SCRAMBLE

It is Schmidt's utter misfortune that he lost his best player before a ball was even kicked in his maiden Six Nations campaign - there are many who can deputise for Sean O'Brien, none, however, who can replace him.

Tommy O'Donnell and Chris Henry are the leading candidates and it would be fascinating if they were given 40 minutes each to state their case.

The Munster man has recent explosive form, but Henry's prodigious work-rate is a big asset; in simplistic terms, if you added these two together, one would get ... Sean O'Brien.

Henry could easily start the Scotland game, allowing Jamie Heaslip to carry more and paving the way for O'Donnell to wreak havoc late on. If O'Donnell starts, Heaslip will revert to his role in the tight.

Nobody will own the No 7 jersey in this tournament and Jordi Murphy's enthusiastic recent run is worthy of note, too, and if he plays No 8 this weekend, he may do so in at least one game this championship.

OUT-HALF CONUNDRUM

Schmidt's out-half permutations have fluctuated wildly, even since November. Johnny Sexton's professional life seems to have plunged still further as his club continues to be exposed as a rabble.

Ian Madigan is not first choice at Leinster; Paddy Jackson was unceremoniously turfed off kicking duties at Ulster, but Schmidt must choose one to back up Sexton against Scotland.

Ian Keatley is not as far off the pace as it may have seemed in November after his authority eased Munster into Europe's last eight.

THE BOD QUESTION

Brian O'Driscoll was 35 yesterday. Robbie Henshaw will get a chance to wear No 13 this weekend.

Will he do so again in the championship? It may seem highly unlikely, but then so is the chance of Schmidt not selecting O'Driscoll - he will have no qualms in so doing. Schmidt is more than likely going to allow O'Driscoll to step away from one of the five games; so too at 12, with Luke Marshall also challenging strongly for Gordon D'Arcy's shirt. Not at the same time, though.

Schmidt will want to do as well as he can in this championship - and some average sides, albeit with beefy packs, give him every chance of doing so - playing the style of rugby that supporters have become used to.

If he can do so with one eye on 2015, all the better. That World Cup takes place in England. Ireland's long-term build-up will start in the same country this weekend.

Irish Independent

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