Brendan Fanning: 'Selection of Connacht contingent thoroughly justified but rules have been bent for others'
By any stretch this has been a good week for Connacht. A close win over Sale last weekend, currently England’s form team, to set them up this weekend for a crack on Saturday of nailing down a quarter-final place in the Challenge Cup, followed by five players named by Joe Schmidt in the Six Nations squad. And a sixth, Kieran Marmion, sure to follow next month.
Centre Tom Farrell is perhaps the biggest winner, a form selection that is thoroughly justified. So too outhalf Jack Carty. When Munster’s Sammy Arnold and Leinster’s Ross Byrne were named in those slots in November they reflected who was going well at the time. Byrne is hardly going badly in a team that’s flying, so it’s a tough call on him. For Caolin Blade however it’s a reinforcement of the adage that the best way to assess players is to let them play. So with Marmion not due back until the first week of February Blade’s form for Connacht has been very good. The plan will not be to cap him in this Championship, rather to get him up to another speed where there won’t be panic if the fall-over-injured sequence at nine continues and he has to be capped.
Up front Ultan Dillane will be delighted at the turn of events. Second row is the most competitive slot in the squad, so he’s doing well to make it – just as Quinn Roux, a favourite selection of Schmidt over the years, loses out. Tight head Finlay Bealham is another victim of a cutback in that November saw four tight heads picked for a programme of four games – albeit one of them, against USA, a virtual runout – whereas just three are named for this course of five obstacles.
Sean O’Brien is named again, in the hope that he gets a bit further into the series than was the case in November. His inclusion reaffirms the first rule about selection: rules will be bent. So form is a guide for lots of players, and a tool to separate some, but in other cases you pick in hope that the player can stay upright and deliver some of the quality he has done in the past. O’Brien is in this category.
That would hold true as well for the selection of Jack McGrath. Denis Buckley will look at that one and wonder about its rationale. It’s awkward but simple: Schmidt doesn’t think the Connacht man can do a job at Test level. Meantime Ulster don’t have anyone sufficiently developed to shift McGrath out of the frame so Schmidt hopes the Leinster loosehead can dredge up something from the recent past. If somewhere along the line, between now and the coach’s departure, however he has to dial up Buckley to fill a gap it will be a conversation worth recording.
Not as good as the chat with Rory Best if Schmidt follows form on that selection. We have a rocky enough road between now and Japan so it will be interesting to see how Best fares on that journey. Sean Cronin is the best hooker in the country though it will be a challenge for him to prove that coming off the bench. Neither does it help that he’s trying to oust the captain.