Saturday 16 December 2017

George Hook: Such a daring and exciting Ireland team selection seemed beyond Joe Schmidt

George Hook

George Hook

The long list of the walking wounded in Ireland's sick bay has finally forced the coach's hand in terms of team selection.

After two Championship matches without a win, Joe Schmidt has opted to bring in two of Ireland's most talented young players in Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier.

The introduction of the Ulster centre and Leinster openside to the starting XV is to be welcomed, even if it has come later than was reasonably expected. McCloskey has been a supreme attacking weapon in the Ulster midfield this season; his naturally large frame and soft hands a potent combination in unlocking opposition defences.

Van der Flier is a better natural openside than Sean O'Brien and his pace at the breakdown will be a major asset in Ireland's battle against the bulky England back-row of Chris Robshaw, James Haskell and Billy Vunipola. Not since the retirement of Keith Gleeson has Ireland had a better out-and-out seven in the pack.

As an aside, one must now question whether O'Brien has a long-term future left in the game. His rate of attrition over the years is clear evidence that his body cannot cope with the repeated physical examinations of the modern game. How much longer is O'Brien prepared to spend rehabbing a broken body, only to pick up yet another injury upon his return? One can only imagine his frustration.

The selection of McCloskey at inside centre means that Robbie Henshaw will operate at 13, a position in which he has very limited experience. Immediately, when the team was named, my thoughts turned to Garry Ringrose and the wonderful prospect of seeing the talented young Leinster man slot in alongside McCloskey in the centre, with Henshaw at full-back.

Such a daring and exciting Ireland selection seems beyond the head coach. More is the pity, for Ireland, with that combination, would have the most potent attacking three-quarter line in the Championship.

One can only hope that Schmidt has had the good sense to adjust Ireland's tactics this week to suit the strengths of his starting XV. There is no point selecting a mobile openside in Van der Flier and then asking him to fill Sean O'Brien's ball-carrying boots

Van der Flier excels in his work rate around the pitch and his willingness to offer himself as an extra line of support to the backs will give Ireland a different attacking threat out wide.

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The 22-year-old operates in much the same way Justin Tipuric does for Wales and his pace and ability to run off inside lines will give England's defence plenty of pause for thought. Ireland must capitalise on Van Der Flier's pace and aggression.

The basic laws of physics demand that Ireland come up with a variation on their one-up bashing tactics if they are to have any chance of beating England. Eddie Jones has picked a strong, powerful starting 15, with arguably the most physical back-row unit in the Championship.

Ireland will get very little return if they employ a kick-chase strategy to England's back three, while the continuation of the predictable one-up running style that has failed to yield more than a single, solitary try against Wales and France - and that from all of one yard against the Welsh - will be ineffective at Twickenham tomorrow.

I refute the ludicrous assertion that full-time professionals are incapable of offloading the ball. These players live and breathe rugby, seven days a week. Passing the ball out of contact should be second nature to all of them.

It has been clear for some time now that Ireland will not offload the ball, not because they can't, but because they won't. The fear of reprisal seems to be an impediment to a more expansive, open style of play. Tomorrow is the perfect opportunity to change what has become a predictable and boring model. At this point, there is nothing to lose.


Crucial to Ireland's chances of success will be the form of Jonathan Sexton who, we are told, is fit enough to play. As Ruaidhri O'Connor pointed out in these pages, Sexton has finished just three of his last 22 games. Is it not reasonable to assume that something is amiss with the Leinster fly-half? If he fails to remain on the pitch for 80 minutes tomorrow, Schmidt will have some serious explaining to do. I do not believe that Sexton is fully fit.

The return of Mike Ross to the front-row is an attempt to shore up what has been an extremely ineffective Ireland scrum. Like Ross, Dan Cole has struggled since the introduction of the new engagement laws, so it will be interesting to see if Ireland can get some sort of parity at set-piece. That Schmidt is still relying on a 36-year-old tighthead to hold up the scrum is worrying.

Ireland travel to Twickenham more in hope than expectation tomorrow, but the performance and style of play, more than the result, will be foremost in my mind. McCloskey and Van der Flier are bound to make mistakes, but the development of these two will serve Ireland well in the long run. It's just a pity Schmidt hasn't managed to bring more young players through.

The false bubble that is northern hemisphere rugby is not the standard by which Ireland should be measuring itself. England, Wales, Scotland and France all flattered to deceive in the RWC and Ireland, with a limited game plan, were sent packing by Argentina. It's time for a new plan. Hopefully, regardless of the result, tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new era.

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