Thursday 17 October 2019

David Kelly: 'Joe Schmidt's Succession plan for No 10 begins with Italy dilemma'

Keeping his rival out-halves happy could become a pivotal task for Ireland coach in 2019

Jonathan Sexton, left, and Joey Carbery. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton, left, and Joey Carbery. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland's Ronan O'Gara, left, and Johnny Sexton. Photo: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Ronan O'Gara, left, and David Humphreys. Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Fate can mock anyone's best laid-plans. Joe Schmidt's World Cup planning is wide and varied but, as his previous experience and that of his predecessors has demonstrated, what happens in the pivot position of his team promises to be, well, pivotal.

In 2015, shorn of Jonathan Sexton, Schmidt was forced to play Ian Madigan at ten and, even though there were other key absentees, if the Kiwi ever pens a memoir, he may reflect on this as one of the key selection errors of his hugely successful Irish reign.

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He is determined not to make the same mistake again.

Determining Sexton's back-up dogged Schmidt's reign before the last World Cup and, predominantly, he seemed to favour Madigan, despite his well-heralded difficulties in getting game-time there for Leinster.

Paddy Jackson, a more likely candidate, was seemingly earmarked for the prime position as deputy but, instead, Madigan, with his versatility deemed an added virtue, hogged the number 23 shirt.

And yet it was Madigan who started the quarter-final against Argentina with Jackson remaining on the outside looking in as Ireland's World Cup hopes went the same way.

Madigan retained the back-up role in the subsequent season but events took a twist when he opted to leave for Bordeaux; that summer, Jackson grabbed his opportunity and the trust of his coach on the three-match tour to South Africa.

Enter fate, once more. The spiralling events that transpired after Jackson's homeward journey in that summer of 2016 peremptorily removed him from the international picture.

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Just a few months later, a lad called Joey Carbery steered Ireland to a first ever victory against the All Blacks despite starting just five times for Leinster. Events dear boy, events. This was not succession planning as per the Schmidt masterplan but a dramatic response to an unfolding sporting crisis.

Since then, Schmidt and his boss David Nucifora have energised themselves to maximise the sudden opportunity thrust upon them.

Unlike Madigan and Leinster before him, Carbery and his province were, shall we say, persuaded that the best move for all was a switch to Munster where he could thrive as a first-choice ten, displacing Tyler Bleyendaal, a once-famed project player whose own role in succession planning had grown increasingly irrelevant.

All, now at least, seems settled. When Sexton was belatedly withdrawn against Scotland this month, Carbery enjoyed his most sustained championship minutes and, despite one major error, emerged with much credit in the restorative win.

Sexton's fitness has been confirmed ahead of this week's trip to Rome and, as Schmidt sharpens his World Cup planning, he must now decide whether the main man's need for game-time supersedes that of Carbery's requirement for more experience at the coalface.

It would be interesting to glean the pair's reaction this week when one of them is told they are not starting.

Sexton remains supreme in his majesty of the position but there are no guarantees, as he discovered yet again to his cost when his selfless creation of Jacob Stockdale's wonder try in Murrayfield repaid him with another concussive blow.

There would seem little point in risking him against the Italians but having played just a game and a half this year, a player who demands constant game-time may baulk at sitting idle for three successive weekends.

Carbery, who has stated he wants to start every match, would also be piqued were he not deemed worthy of the coach's trust to guide Ireland against the hapless Italians. Schmidt's task now is not merely alighting on his two principal pivots but also keeping them happy; he would much prefer to have more than two but, with Ross Byrne losing out to Jack Carty, there seems to be uncertainty the deeper one goes.

So two it is, then.

Irish sport wallows in constructing a narrative of perceived animus between rival out-halves - even if Campbell/Ward and Sexton/O'Gara remain lifelong friends - but Schmidt's task is to ensure that this particular competitive duel does not get out of hand when the pressure points are intensified.

It is a job that didn't always sit well with his predecessors.

Ronan O'Gara still bristles at how his Irish career was suddenly terminated by Declan Kidney in the dog days of the Cork man's reign.


Then again, Sexton himself had been angry at O'Gara's TV interview after not starting the 2011 World Cup win against Australia; the tournament was notable for failing to confirm either man as the pre-eminent starting ten. The pair's simmering rivalry deviated with each man's non-selection until the Corkman was unceremoniously 'retired'. O'Gara himself had graduated from the shadow of David Humphreys - a red-letter day at home to the Italians a seminal moment in 2000 - leading to the Ulsterman's less-than-cheerful retirement.

However, a lack of viable alternatives to O'Gara meant that Eddie O'Sullivan left the door open for the veteran had he wished to return for the 2007 World Cup; he did not.

On Friday, Schmidt must decide who is the best man for the Italian job and how it fits into his grand design. He must be content with his decision but one of his players will not be.

Even though Sexton is undoubtedly the main man, managing such a delicate balance will be one of the most crucial aspects of this World Cup year.

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