Comment - There is a gaping hole in Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad and an area of strength is now a concern
Time was when you would look at an Ireland squad for the Six Nations and immediately scan the prop contingent to see just how weak was the weakest link in the chain.
To illustrate the appealing new vista consider that the thumb injury to James Cronin on Saturday, against Racing, hardly caused a ripple on the surface of the upper tier. Cronin made his Six Nations debut in Paris last February. It didn’t change the course of the Championship, or indeed his career the way he hoped, but with a few adjustments you could send him out with confidence that he would do a good job.
Having Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne on hand means news of Cronin’s finger – he will be out for six weeks having had an operation on it yesterday - means there is nothing to see, so move on. And that’s before you consider the claims of Denis Buckley (26), who has played 108 times for Connacht, and back when candidates were thinner on the ground would have been hoovering up Ireland caps.
Of the three in Joe Schmidt’s squad two – McGrath and Healy – are almost certain to tour, one way or another, with Warren Gatland to New Zealand in the summer.
Across the scrum Schmidt can luxuriate in the comfort of three Test tight heads to choose from, again two of whom – Tadhg Furlong and Finlay Bealham – are likely to be busy in June and July. The third, John Ryan, was described by Furlong over the weekend as the form scrummager in Ireland at the moment. All of which is removed from the recent past when Mike Ross’s mobility was not an even issue. Rather there was one item agenda: is he available?
Across the 40 man squad the coach can mix and match, depending on the demands, like none of his predecessors. The most common sense selection was the two uncapped Munster players, the Scannell brothers, and the least was the inclusion of Tommy Bowe, who has no form.
The gaping hole in the squad is at 13, where the absence of the injured Jared Payne is likely to stretch well beyond the first two games for which this squad is selected to cover. And to a lesser extent Sean Cronin, who is part of the furniture at this stage, and whose hamstring will see him miss the entire gig.
Garry Ringrose’s well managed progress has eased Payne’s loss, but Schmidt would be better served if he had a creative player in the same mould coming through, rather than what Luke Marshall has to offer. It would be a significant shift to file Tiernan O’Halloran under that heading, but he is such a good rugby player you would love to see him given the opportunity.
More likely Schmidt’s area of greatest concern is now halfback. In Ireland we used to be able to churn out scrumhalves at a slower rate than Wales would spew out 10s, but still it was acceptable. The all round excellence of Conor Murray has served to highlight the yawning gap to what’s coming behind at nine.
And at outhalf there is the ongoing soap opera that is Johnny Sexton’s fitness. The combination of his brittle body and savagely competitive nature must be acutely difficult for him to manage. Leinster and Ireland suffer in turn when he is not there. Between Sexton’s capricious fitness and Joey Carbery being a few weeks away still from regaining his, the playmaking slot looks bare with only Paddy Jackson currently in the whole of his health. Ian Madigan would argue with that assessment – he is fit, as Saturday in Belfast showed, but equally Bordeaux don’t seem to be utilising what he has to offer. So far neither is Joe Schmidt.