Five talking points from Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad announcement
As Ireland’s quest for an unprecedented third successive Championship begins in earnest, Joe Schmidt has named an exciting, if slightly predictable, 35-man panel.
Rory’s Best to steer the ship
As expected, Joe Schmidt has asked Ulster’s Rory Best to succeed the totemic Paul O’Connell as Ireland’s captain. Best was the bookies’ favourite to be offered the role and has beaten out stiff competition from the Leinster trio of Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien. That Best is 33 and an unrealistic presence at the World Cup in Japan four years hence, it would seem that the injured Peter O’Mahony might still be the long-term choice.
Best has skippered his province with great distinction over the years and is a highly respected figure among his peers, and already enjoys a prominent position of leadership. Furthermore, Ireland’s most capped hooker ever has led Ireland on 12 occasions, most recently in the World Cup quarter final loss to Argentina, so he’s unlikely to be unsettled by the increased demands of his new station.
Uncapped foursome added to the mix
Schmidt, to be fair, has given the nod to a quartet of the country’s most exciting talents yet to grace the international stage. The dynamic Josh Van Der Flier, arguably the highlight of Leo Cullen’s brief tenure at Leinster, will have to make a serious impression at Carton House over the coming weeks, given Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock and Tommy O’Donnell are in the group, but the experience the Wesley College alumni is set to gain will be invaluable.
Also in the back row, the recently naturalised CJ Stander has been rewarded for his incredible consistency over the last two seasons. He may not move ahead of Jamie Heaslip in the pecking order at number eight, but Stander’s ball-carrying and abrasive style could see him slot into the considerable void left behind by provincial teammate Peter O’Mahony on the blindside of the scrum. The South African would also make a potent impact sub.
Stuart McCloskey’s barnstorming brilliance has also been recognised at the national level and, at the very least, the Bangor man will keep the convalescing Robbie Henshaw honest or, perhaps, partner him. An exciting inclusion by all accounts.
Finally, Connacht’s Ultan Dillane has been preferred to the more seasoned Dave Foley of Munster. The Kerryman could provide the type of athleticism from lock that will be lacking in the face of Iain Henderson’s absence.
Ringrose misses out
Given his form and the manner in which he’s imbued the Leinster faithful, there was an expectancy that Garry Ringrose would be called upon by Schmidt.
Evidently, the Kiwi believes it to be a step too far for the youngster. To be fair, Ringrose only made his first European start against Bath last weekend, so the decision is hardly mindboggling. What’s more, Jared Payne made a successful return to action for Ulster against Saracens, albeit at full-back, while Luke Marshall has revelled in the northern province’s dynamic midfield throughout the campaign to date.
That Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls also have international experience in the number 13 jersey was obviously another factor in Schmidt not exposing the Blackrock tyro to the crucible of test rugby this soon.
Still, Ringrose will benefit from regular Pro 12 starts during the Championship and, such is attrition rate of the modern game, injury may present him with an opportunity.
Battle Royale for midfield berths on the cards
Considering the above, it will be curious to see exactly what midfield Schmidt has in mind for the opener against Wales on February 7. Ireland’s lack of creativity and predictability from the centre has bewildered fans and pundits alike.
With Henshaw, Payne, McCloskey, Earls, Marshall and Fitzgerald all on deck, Schmidt is relatively spoilt. He may urge Fitzgerald and Earls to concentrate on nailing down a spot on the wing, given the plethora of more natural candidates.
The idea of McCloskey starting with Henshaw outside him is mouth-watering. What a thrusting and destructive pairing they’d make.
Injury concerns linger
Leinster prop Cian Healy , a cornerstone of Ireland’s scrum in recent years, is still recouping from an elective knee surgery. While Mike Ross has been excluded as he continues to nurse a hamstring issue.
What’s more, as aforementioned, Payne is just back in the saddle and, more pressingly, Robbie Henshaw will have a scan on his hand on Friday to determine whether or not he can play for Connacht over the weekend, the result of which will be keenly awaited by the Irish management. Ulster openside Chris Henry has also been omitted dues to a shoulder ailment.
With Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and O’Mahony already notably absentees, the timing could be better.