Monday 21 January 2019

Comment: Future can wait - the Six Nations title is Joe Schmidt's main goal

Squad may contain new faces but reclaiming the Six Nations is too important for meddling

The elusive Jordan Larmour has played his way into the Six Nations debate. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The elusive Jordan Larmour has played his way into the Six Nations debate. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When speaking in public, Ireland players rarely let their next-game mantra slip but there were a couple of occasions during November when members of the squad allowed their minds to drift towards the spring.

It was clear that one of the squad's main goals this season is to knock England off their perch and reclaim the Six Nations title they last won in 2015.

That may be an obvious statement, but in the two Championships since the World Cup Schmidt's side have not been competitors for the title.

The 2016 effort was disrupted by injury, while last season's challenge ran aground in Murrayfield and Cardiff. A year on, there is a strong sense that the rebuilding work is now at a stage where Ireland can mount a consistent bid to win the tournament.

Today, Schmidt names his squad for the first two rounds and it is expected that Jordan Larmour's name will be one of the 35 or so included - and so he should be.

The 20-year-old is in stunning form and deserves a place on the panel, but given the opening fixture is away to France in Paris, it seems likely that he'll have to bide his time to take the next step in his development.

In 2017, Schmidt infused the squad with new blood; using the summer tour of the United States and Japan to fast-track members of the 2016 U-20 World Cup squad.

Blooding Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale clearly indicated long-term thinking and all three will have some involvement in the coming months.

Caution Yet, Schmidt is likely to stick with an experienced core for his starting XV - particularly in Paris for the opener in less than three weeks' time. That fixture will make or break Ireland's Championship and it is one that the New Zealander will treat with the utmost caution.

A year ago, Ireland were in a confident mood going to Edinburgh and came a cropper - they will be aiming to learn the lessons of that day.

With the provinces going well in Europe, there is plenty for Schmidt to sift through before he began phoning the players who didn't make the cut.

The coach will have pored over every performance and analysed the players to death before making those calls.

It seems unlikely that his policy on overseas selections will be have been changed by the performances of Donnacha Ryan or Simon Zebo at the weekend, although the idea of bringing Tadhg Beirne in might appeal. However, the Scarlets lock - who will move to Munster next summer - revealed yesterday that he has had no contact from the IRFU and may have to bide his time.

Lock is not the deepest area of Schmidt's squad, but the injuries have been kind in that department and it seems likely he'll stick with Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Ryan, Kieran Treadwell and Ultan Dillane for the Championship.

He has issues at hooker where Niall Scannell is just back training and James Tracy is out, meaning Seán Cronin could earn a recall on the back of some excellent performances for Leinster.

The prop stocks are good, but John Ryan's inability to force his way into the Munster starting XV is a concern, while there are back-row issues given Seán O'Brien and Rhys Ruddock's absence through injury which opens the door for Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy to play a big role.

It is behind the scrum where the real intrigue will take place, in particular out wide where there are several players pressing hard for selection. Larmour is the cause celebre, but Fergus McFadden is in irrepressible form, while Keith Earls and Andrew Conway are firing for Munster.

Rob Kearney will retain his place, but his brother Dave and Munster's Darren Sweetnam could be in trouble after falling out of favour for their provinces in recent weeks.

Garry Ringrose's injury removes one of the most interesting equations from Schmidt's in-tray, meaning Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are front-runners to start with Chris Farrell and perhaps Rory Scannell and Stuart McCloskey battling it out for the next slot.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are the pre-eminent half-backs, but it will be interesting to see who will join them in Carton House.

Luke McGrath, Kieran Marmion and John Cooney are all in flying form and pushing for scrum-half selection, while Joey Carbery's lack of recent game-time is unlikely to prevent him from getting the call.

Ian Keatley's performances for Munster should earn him another call-up and it would be no surprise if he started the tournament in the No 22 shirt.

Whether it's in or out, Larmour's name will be the one making headlines today.

"He is a really exciting player to have in the squad at the moment. He brings such energy," Girvan Dempsey said of the 20-year-old yesterday.

"He is the last one to leave the field and he bounds out onto the field. He works so hard on the game, does a huge amount of work on his ball skills. He goes through video work with us on his positional play. His ball-in-hand skills are excellent. The speed and accuracy of his passing is excellent. He is constantly learning.

"He has shown that he's not fazed by big occasions which has been a real asset.

"Sometimes you get a young player who is on the scene and he's got that exuberance and he's daunted by the occasion. But, Jordan hasn't been fazed and he's got a really good grounding."

It was a strong endorsement and it is expected that Larmour will be in the squad.

He may have to wait for his debut, however. Winning in Paris is the primary focus and experience will count when it comes to selection as talk of 2019 is parked for the spring.

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