Monday 21 May 2018

George Hook: Joe Schmidt's selection policy is resembling those of Charlton and Trapattoni

George Hook

George Hook

Ireland ultimately succumbed to England at Twickenham after a brave, committed and organised display. Astonishingly, it has been hailed with universal approval.

When was an Irish team never brave or committed? As Winston Churchill said after Dunkirk: "We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory."

Ireland's record since the summer before the Rugby World Cup makes dismal reading and we remain without a victory after three Six Nations games. Wales, France and England were massively undercooked and there for the taking by a team that had expansion, risk and vision in its armoury.

The incredible defensive effort of the first half was undone by lack of control. In a complete turnaround in the second half. Ireland went 10-6 clear and the match was theirs.

Ireland cannot now - nor will they in the future - win games against major rugby nations, playing risk-averse rugby. Two tries in three games is our total so far; both scored by the scrum-half from a yard. The experts bemoaned Ireland's inability to be clinical but how do players perform when in a strategic straitjacket?

Make no mistake, this was not the team that Joe Schmidt picked. This was the team that circumstances picked. Before the opening games of the championship, this newspaper asked me for my choice of personnel to face Wales.

My pick included Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane. Does anybody doubt the assertion that those three stars against England would not have made the cut if injuries had not occurred?

Yet again the Irish wings were ineffective. Andrew Trimble was a defensive nightmare and handled badly, while Keith Earls continues to flatter to deceive. In my team also was Connacht's Matt Healy, who is crying out for selection on recent form. Healy was on the try-sheet once again for Connacht against the Ospreys on Saturday, adding to his hat-trick the previous weekend.

Many would have questioned my choice of Tadhg Furlong at prop forward but it is increasingly apparent that Mike Ross's sole function in the Ireland jersey is to hold up the scrum. He contributes nothing around the field. At 23 years of age, Furlong will undoubtedly improve. At 36, Ross's best days are behind him.

Jack Charlton and Giovanni Trapattoni were accused of not watching players outside the squad. One wonders what Schmidt was doing when watching provincial rugby this season. He is fixated by a game plan and wedded to a team that has proven not to work. Albert Einstein suggested that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Robbie Henshaw's magnificent afternoon was the final indictment of the selection. Playing at outside centre he showed the invention, pace and skill that was strangled by the coach's insistence of using him as a battering ram inside Jared Payne.

Imagine what an Ireland backline might be like if Henshaw was picked at his best and preferred position of full-back? Before this championship, that was my selection, with the outrageously talented Garry Ringrose paired with McCloskey. The problem is that the Irish management believe that what they describe as "external critics" have nothing to offer. The result, one feels, is that there is a stubborn refusal to change just to prove the critics wrong.


However, there is more than just selection and game plan at issue with this team. The kicking from hand was appalling. Murray's box-kicking was back to his worst; Jonny Sexton never put the catchers under pressure at the restart; and aimless kicks by Earls, Jamie Heaslip and others were the order of the day.

Ireland did well because Sexton had his best game in 18 months and the midfield outside him had punch. One yearns to see him playing with a backline with the freedom and flair of, say, a Wallaby unit.

Sexton continued his inexorable kicking success but one has to question the wisdom of turning down kicks at goal when there was the opportunity to widen the gap. This is a team that cannot score tries but has the best place-kicker on the planet. I would have thought that the strategy was clear.

The substitution policy also bears study. Ross and Jack McGrath provided a stable platform at the scrum and were then substituted one felt by adherence to a pre-ordained plan rather than a realisation of what might happen when the second team arrived. The result was predictable as Cian Healy and Nathan White capitulated, once against seven men.

Perhaps the coach might be reminded that John Hayes was invariably asked to play 80 minutes in every game because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.

Ultimately England won this game because of the gargantuan efforts of Billy Vunipola. He showed the virtues of having a ball-carrier in the ranks of the forwards. CJ Stander is immeasurably better than Heaslip in this regard and the 6 and 8 shirts should be exchanged between the two men. I am not holding my breath.

Ireland now are hoping to beat the minnows in the remaining games to put a reasonable face on the season. Italy will be a pushover but Scotland on the last day might just be difficult.

It is not a prospect calculated to sell tickets.

Irish Independent

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