Sunday 24 March 2019

Schmidt will measure cloth before making any cuts

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Declan Kidney
David Kelly

David Kelly

SIX YEARS AGO, as Cheltenham week dawned, Ireland had also negotiated three of five Grand Slam fences.

Then, as now, they had seen off England and France at home, as well as Italy away; Scotland and, finally, Wales beckoned and, while some murmured at the ultra-conservative game-plan - sound familiar? - the winning buzz soothed most dissenting voices.

In 2015, the finishing hurdles will be faced in reverse order.

There remains enough doubts surrounding the fitness of key players this week - notably Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton - to invite too much conjecture about whether or not Joe Schmidt might shuffle his selection.

Then again, in 2009 few had expected that Declan Kidney would take a scalpel to his winning team when Scotland loomed.

During that campaign, the popular baggage master 'Rala' O'Reilly had taken to pinning up daily notes of wisdom for his squad to absorb; as Murrayfield beckoned, second-row Donncha O'Callaghan was invited to submit his own thought for the day.

Harking back to his days on the building sites as a teenager, he opted for a simple, four-word idiom. "Measure twice, cut once."

Carpentry

Borrowed from the carpentry profession, it simply means that one should double-check before cutting in order to prevent waste.

Kidney was about to apply the maxim to its fullest possibility on the Monday morning when the team re-assembled for the last two legs of their Grand Slam tilt. He had intensely pondered the most dramatic of cuts - and he knew there could be no turning back.

When the cull came, it reminded many of Kidney's background as a teacher. For, as Paddy Wallace received the curly finger to leave the team room in order to have a word, he saw three familiar faces in the corridor outside.

Jamie Heaslip, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O'Leary were waiting there, too.

Kidney was eager to shake up his team but not at the expense of changing the team's approach.

As with this year, there were grumbles about the lack of width and off-loading and general attacking flaws against England, despite the win and Wallace, in particular, had rarely been used as the play-making 12 he most certainly was.

But Wallace had dove-tailed well with Brian O'Driscoll on the previous summer tour to Australia and New Zealand; few expected a change here.

Rory Best and Peter Stringer had performed strongly from the bench in the opening three games but Flannery's superb throwing and carrying, combined with O'Leary's improved kicking game, scarcely hinted at change here, either.

And nobody expected Heaslip to lose out. Least of all the player himself.

"It's natural not to be happy with it," he admitted. "Especially if you've been starting and if you think things have been going well. But once the coach makes a decision, you've got to go with it.

"I had to go with it, deal with it, just get on with it and try to be positive, not be negative around the camp."

The management thought process was unanimously pointed towards the theory that changing just one player would have been even more counter-productive than a handful.

"If we had made just one change, it would have appeared that player was being dropped," recalled assistant Alan Gaffney later. "Make four changes and we're just doing it from a squad perspective."

"I didn't want to wait until we lost before I made some changes," Kidney had informed his captain, O'Driscoll, who didn't quite get the coach's logic. "Some people aren't going to be happy."

Heaslip was the most unhappy.

The Leinster man was not budged into thinking that his was anything other than a demotion, rather than rotation. He told Kidney so to his face, expressed his disappointment but vowed to do his best.

"I'll still be Mr Positive," he declared robustly. In Murrayfield, he would do just that, scoring the definitive try after his replacement, Denis Leamy, had been forced off prematurely with shoulder damage.

If anything was indicative of that year's squad ethic, then this cameo perfectly illustrated the squad dynamic.

"It was the old Deccie strategy," according to O'Callaghan. "It was designed to put the wind up everyone in the squad. It worked, as usual."

Ejected

Already this Monday - eerily, also March 9 - Gordon D'Arcy has been ejected from the squad. Few, though, expect many changes to the squad, even though Rob Kearney warns against complacency.

"Joe's a hard man to read, you never know what he might do," he says, as you playfully remind him there were seven full-backs in the England squad.

"I haven't thought about it a huge amount. It's unlikely he'll make a huge amount of changes."

Best, too, is unlikely to suffer exclusion but remains wary, nonetheless.

"Joe is not only not afraid to use his bench, but he's not afraid to bring players in as and when he sees fit. It definitely keeps you on your toes."

Irish Independent

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