Friday 6 December 2019

George Hook: Joe Schmidt's entire ethos on the line as Irish rugby falters

George Hook

The short-term future of Irish rugby rests in the hands of two men. Over the last two years it has become increasingly clear that the remit of David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt extends only to the betterment of the Ireland national team.

And, while back-to-back Six Nations titles may seem like a justifiable return for their efforts, it has come with a heavy price that is being paid for by the provinces.

It is no coincidence that the IRFU's dwindling financial support for Leinster, Munster and Ulster has resulted in a season already best forgotten. Not so long ago, the IRFU had almost 30 centrally-contracted players on its books. Now, it has only 14.

This shortfall has forced the provinces into picking up the tab, meaning less available finance to supplement homegrown talent with overseas recruitment. Gone are the days when the likes of Rocky Elsom, Brad Thorn, Nathan Hines or Doug Howlett could consider a move to Ireland.

The consequences of this stagnant recruitment process is playing itself out in the shambles that is the current season, where not a single Irish province has qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.

And, with Nucifora pulling the strings on Irish contracts and Schmidt dictating selection criteria to the head coaches in the provinces, Irish rugby is in real danger of plummeting to the nether regions of the also-rans.

Worryingly still, if the rot of poor performances begins to take hold and transfers itself to increasing regularity, it will be extremely difficult to reverse.

How long before Irish fans replace the fervour and excitement of a new season with anxiety and trepidation of the inevitability of what is to come? And we may not have to wait too long to find out.

This weekend, Irish rugby fanatics turn their attention to the national side in the hope of finding an antidote to the under-performing provinces.

That the Ireland squad contains the bulk of the players that so badly disappointed for their clubs recently seems to have been completely lost amid a desperate clamour for optimism.

With trips to England and France, Ireland's hopes of a third successive title are dependent on winning three home matches and picking up at least one win in London or Paris.

Our hopes will effectively be gone if we fail to account for Wales - a feat that, over the last five years, has proved very difficult.

Warren Gatland has had Ireland's measure recently, with Wales coming out on top in five of the last eight meetings. In fact, if you exclude the World Cup warm-up win in Cardiff, against a largely third-string Welsh selection, Ireland have managed only two victories in seven attempts. Hardly reason for optimism.

This week, true to form, Gatland wasted little time in revealing his starting XV, with Justin Tipuric the big name to come into the back-row at the expense of Dan Lydiate. Tipuric has been one of the form flankers in European rugby over the past two years and his inclusion as a starter alongside Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau is bad news for Ireland.

Wales are a better side with Tipuric involved and his pace and ability to steal turn-over ball will cause problems. The selection of Luke Charteris is primarily to negate Devin Toner's effectiveness in the line-out and I expect the Racing 92 lock to come out on top against his Irish counterpart. Alun-Wyn Jones promises a typically menacing performance alongside Charteris. How Ireland could do with Paul O'Connell on Sunday.

Schmidt's selection will tell us a great deal about how Ireland will approach the game.

The blind dogs on the street have been critical of Rob Kearney's performances for Leinster this season. Will Schmidt bite the bullet and select Jared Payne in his preferred position at full-back? If form is a guide, Payne must play at No 15.

Stuart McCloskey is a ready-made international centre and his impressive outings for Ulster should see him start alongside Robbie Henshaw in the midfield.

Luke Fitzgerald's injury puts Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls as the front-runners to be named on the wings. Certainly, on the basis of this season, Dave Kearney is not deserving of his place.

And with the Irish provinces so clearly playing second fiddle, it is incumbent on Schmidt and Nucifora to deliver a tangible return to support their template.

Because if Ireland under-perform in this campaign, we can only deduce that the current system is not fit for purpose.

Sunday against Wales will tell us an awful lot.

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