Monday 25 March 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Awkward timing makes for tricky picking for Joe Schmidt'

Two of a kind: Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery are competing for the No 10 jersey in Joe Schmidt’s side. Photo: Sportsfile
Two of a kind: Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery are competing for the No 10 jersey in Joe Schmidt’s side. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When the prospect of playing Italy comes around, Joe Schmidt is always quick to recall how the last meeting of the sides before he took over ended in Ireland's only defeat to the Azzurri.

It is not that he is trying to compare his record to Declan Kidney's, rather he is trying to ground us all in the reality that this fixture can go disastrously wrong.

Almost everything we've seen since 2013 has disproved that notion.

Only one of the seven games Schmidt has overseen between the teams has ended in a one-score game and that was a taut World Cup pool win at the London Olympic Stadium.

Even with that 16-9 win included, the average margin of Irish victories during the Schmidt era is 35 points, with Ireland clearing the half-century mark and scoring eight or more tries on four occasions.

So, there is absolutely nothing to fear for Ireland this weekend as they make their way to Rome.


Publicly at least, the champions are not giving up on their title defence but as they go into the weekend six points behind a rampant England side, the coaches will be realistic about what is achievable.

After losing to England, Schmidt outlined the new reality that the main goal of the year is success at the World Cup.

With three titles in five attempts, the New Zealander's Six Nations legacy is assured regardless of what they achieve in the coming weeks.

Instead, the next three games are part of the long build-up towards Japan.

Coming in the middle of two break weekends, the trip to Rome is awkwardly timed for the head coach.

He is faced with a delicate selection balance, with a number of key men still playing their way in to form.

Earlier this month, Warren Gatland took Wales to Nice for the week between their meetings with France and Italy away and made wholesale changes to his match-day squad in the name of playing through a World Cup-style scenario.

There is no equivalent for having a single game against an inferior opponent between two rest weeks at the World Cup.

And, for Schmidt, the balance must be struck between the long-term investment in squad depth for Japan and the need for a couple of key figures to play their way into form.

In terms of experience, Ireland's depth is probably weakest at full-back, out-half, scrum-half, hooker and tighthead prop.

This always seemed like the perfect place for Joey Carbery to get his first Six Nations start, yet Johnny Sexton is light on game-time.

Carbery got almost an hour in the win over Scotland and that experience will stand to him in the months to come.

If Schmidt doubles down on the Munster man's time in the jersey, it means Sexton will come in to the clash with France cold on the back of 103 minutes of rugby since Thomond Park on December 29.

Equally, Conor Murray is still slowly edging back after missing the first half of the season.

Kieran Marmion is likely to return to the squad in the coming weeks, while John Cooney has been limited to six minutes over two games despite his excellent Ulster form.

For all there is a need to develop an alternative to Murray, there is a compelling case for continuing with him in the starting team so that he comes out of this tournament back to his best.

The coach has demonstrated his ambition to think long term since the outset of the tournament when he picked Robbie Henshaw at full-back and now that the midfielder is fit again, there is another chance to invest in that project at the Stadio Olimpico.

Rob Kearney proved his class against Scotland and remains the No 15 for the World Cup, but if Henshaw is to go to Japan as the back-up then he needs more exposure to the position.

That selection may be impacted by the injuries to Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose, but Tom Farrell showed yet again at the weekend that he merits a look at this level.

Ulster's Will Addison is another whose form could see him included but he appears to have an undisclosed injury.

Captain Rory Best missed this fixture two years ago with a stomach bug and Ireland produced a sizeable win and there's a case to be made for Sean Cronin or Niall Scannell's inclusion from the start.

Ireland coped well without their skipper in Australia, but he's started all of the big games since returning from his hamstring injury.

Since losing ground on tour, Cronin has fought back to take his place on the bench for all of the recent matches and his Leinster form demands a start, but Schmidt has always appeared to view him as an impact replacement.

So, Scannell could come under consideration this weekend as the coach looks to further his options in case his 36-year-old leader goes down.

With Rhys Ruddock out of the game, it looks like the back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and Jack Conan will remain in place for the clash and if Best is given the weekend off then the Munster skipper will lead the side.

If Best is rested, it furthers the case to stick with Sexton given how much of a leadership role he plays in the team.

That is arguably the biggest decision of the week.

The result is almost certainly going to go Ireland's way, the interesting part is how it is achieved and who manages it.

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