Friday 14 December 2018

Comment: How Joe Schmidt has created the dream scenario to grasp a Grand Slam chance

Head coach Joe Schmidt during an Ireland rugby open training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Head coach Joe Schmidt during an Ireland rugby open training session at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In a campaign where injury dominated the preamble, and almost inevitably raised its head in some shape or form in each round thereafter, Joe Schmidt still has been able to select the spine of his side almost untouched since picking the group to play France.

Despite the disruption to his centre partnerships and tight head props, he would have settled happily for that ahead of time.

So Jack Conan's start against Italy had been the only change to the quintet of Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Rory Best and CJ Stander - a group that needs logistical support to carry around the almost 350 caps between them.

And were it not for Stander's massive workload in Paris he would have been in the run-on side a week later against Italy instead of on the bench.

If you're looking to pile extra pressure on a side who have fallen off their perch then that's a decent start. The downside to England's fantastic record is the level of scrutiny that attends its change in course.

As they built to 17 straight wins under Eddie Jones his star dominated the firmament. Losing to Ireland at this point in the campaign last year didn't blitz that because they rattled off another magnificent seven until back to back defeats in the last two rounds of this Championship put them under the microscope.

In those circumstances Scummygate has been a welcome distraction for them. Only the super sensitive could have considered the context of Jones's remarks and still taken offence. And in jumping up and down about it they have suited Jones's cause in taking the heat off his players, and putting it on him.

So the aftermath of England's defeat in Murrayfield was dominated by his being abused by a group of well-sauced men with Scottish accents, who may have been mere opportunists rather than Scottish - never mind Scotland supporters. A welcome distraction.

And now he makes a harmless joke about the "scummy Irish" putting one over on England and this island is spinning on its axis in the rush to take offence. Even if the speech was made ages ago he will cheerfully take the airtime it's been getting if it means giving his players some space.

They need some of that for Saturday. Aside from the injured Robbie Henshaw and Sean O'Brien this is probably the best side Schmidt could put out. Yes, he chose Josh van der Flier ahead of Dan Leavy for France, with O'Brien out of the picture, but the game of asphyxiation the coach loves is one that suits a bruiser like Leavy.

When he looks at his bench too he has a clatter of players who can either close out a game, or change its course. To be in that situation going to the last round is the stuff coaches dream about, but never expect to happen. And in a competition as compressed and attritional as the Six Nations it's the perfect route to a Grand Slam finish.

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