Thursday 13 December 2018

Tony Ward: Time for Schmidt axe to fall - Dropping Heaslip and Kearney the right call

Some changes are required to freshen up starting line-up but England showdown is not the time for Schmidt to experiment

Jamie Heaslip cuts a disappointed figure after Ireland’s defeat to Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Jamie Heaslip cuts a disappointed figure after Ireland’s defeat to Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

After a defeat as disappointing as the one Ireland suffered in Cardiff on Friday night, there's often a clamour for change but it's pointless bringing in young players just for the sake of seeing fresh faces.

Of course I would love to see the likes of Joey Carbery, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan, Niall Scannell and Adam Byrne aboard the good ship Ireland going forward but given the context of Saturday's game it just can't happen.

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If England manage to reproduce the quality from Saturday's Calcutta Cup match and they have every incentive to do so - back-to-back Grand Slams allied to a new world record winning run - what might that do to the confidence and development of a home rookie thrown in for the sake of change?

Jamie Heaslp and Simon Zebo show their disappointment during the defeat against Wales. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Jamie Heaslp and Simon Zebo show their disappointment during the defeat against Wales. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Joe Schmidt will likely take the approach adopted by Rob Howley after Wales's defeat to Scotland and give the majority of his players a chance for redemption but, that said, I still believe there are areas of real concern for Saturday.

We have a batch of back-rows that are among the best in the world but, as is often the case in sport, the crucial factor is to pick the best balance for the team rather than necessarily the best players.

My views on Jamie Heaslip and his worth to Ireland are well established; however, on the basis of four into three still won't go, I would instigate change in swapping Peter O'Mahony, not for Stander, but for Heaslip.

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Seán O'Brien wasn't good in Cardiff but this challenge is made for him.

Stander is the most dynamic No 8 along with Jack Conan. Given a solid scrum the case for Stander to start in his most effective position is hardly rocket science but it would be a bold call by a hitherto extremely loyal coach.

The front-row will remain intact but Rory Best's throwing is an issue when compared with Niall Scannell's torpedo-like delivery to the tail of the line.

Dropping the skipper for a game of this magnitude is not on the agenda nor should it be. Likewise in the second-row, although I believe Iain Henderson's time as a first-choice lock is fast coming. Devin Toner, like Best, will start because he has to. He continues to be our main source of possession out of touch and aside from Friday last has been consistently good for province and country.

Rob Kearney has been likewise across many years but, to get Jared Payne into the side, I would take out the Leinster man rather than tamper with the centre combination.

Garry Ringrose is under pressure but Payne's practical and communicative skills are much better and would help Ringrose batten down the Jonathan Joseph 13/15 channel. It might seem harsh to cut Kearney from the match-day squad altogether, but I believe Craig Gilroy's superior attacking skills would serve as a much better option off the bench.

Beyond that if Conor Murray is fit he will start with Kieran Marmion's replacement performance the one and only positive from Cardiff. I would leave Keith Earls and Simon Zebo on either wing. Earls did reasonably well in Cardiff while Zebo continues to be our most constructive threat by a mile although lacking the out-and-out pace of an Anthony Watson, a Jack Nowell or a Mike Brown.

This lack of burning pace throughout the side, however, is starting to become a problem and, against Wales, it was sad to see us returning to such slavish adherence to the Garryowen.

While Schmidt has loosened the shackles compared to pre-England 2015, we just do not have what it takes in this body of players to create or innovate.

And directly related to that is the lack of top-level pace to finish a line break from 60 or 70 metres a la New Zealand, England, Scotland, even South Africa for all their problems. The head coach recognises that better than any and hence the reliance on what is a brilliant but essentially limited tight back-row. Allied to that is the still obvious reliance on aerial power down the wings.

When a team dominates possession and field position over 80 minutes yet aside from one CJ Stander break up the touchline created by a superb Johnny Sexton cut-out pass our ball-handling was side to side with the decision to resort to the boot whether in the air or along the ground representing a white flag of sorts.

Wales knew they had us in a vice grip and that encouraged their defensive effort even more. While the scrum divvy-up was shared, the lineout was at best 'iffy' with that crucial loss in the first half close to the Welsh line a massive kick in the solar plexus. The Welsh seemed to grow in strength from there. We got the start we wanted but, most worryingly at this time of asking, were unable to build on it.

Best suggested in the build-up that delivering under pressure in Cardiff would show us where we really are after a roller-coaster ride in the opening three rounds - now we know.

Are we expecting too much of our shop-window side given the numbers game, certainly relative to the juggernaut coming our way in five days' time? The answer is no. We have as good a professional set-up and underage developmental system as there is anywhere in the world. Rugby is not our national sport and that does make it more difficult but we are a major player on the international stage and should consistently set our aspirations high.

A potentially good team didn't become a bad one on the back of a hugely disappointing 80-minute performance but our inconsistency was exposed once again. So instead of blaming bus drivers, closed roofs, referees or whatever else, let us concentrate on our own inadequacies and do everything we can to fix them before the English juggernaut comes to town.

Once this Six Nations ends and, irrespective of what Irish players head for New Zealand with the Lions, the Ireland tour to Japan has to represent a new beginning in terms of the return there two years on for World Cup 2019.

And while there should always be an eye to the coming years, the coming days are what is going to provide the mood music to end a few months of international rugby which provided some stunning highs but also some unexpected lows such as what we witnessed on Friday night.

England come to Dublin red hot favourites and rightly so. They are currently the number one team in the northern hemisphere and second only to New Zealand in global terms.

Mission impossible? Of course not but some tweaks are required.

Tony Ward's Ireland XV to face England: J Payne; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, T Furlong; D Ryan, D Toner; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, CJ Stander. Reps: N Scannell, C Healy, J Ryan, I Henderson, J Heaslip, K Marmion, P Jackson, C Gilroy.

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