Wednesday 17 July 2019

George Hook: Zebo omission defies logic and leaves Schmidt open to scrutiny

If Ireland team was picked only on form, Munster star would be a shoo-in

Despite his excellent form for Munster, Simon Zebo has failed to make the Ireland squad
Despite his excellent form for Munster, Simon Zebo has failed to make the Ireland squad

George Hook

Talk to Joe, Simon. Pick up the phone and ask him why you are not involved at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon. Write down the things you need to work on and the skills you need to develop to make sure of your place in the Ireland squad and go and practise them.

Or maybe you already have? Maybe you already went through the areas of your game that need improvement and have been trying to address them over the last month. In which case, something else is amiss.

Based on form, performance and strike rate over the last five weeks he should be a certainty in the match 23. That he is not involved at all today leaves the coach open to scrutiny.

The problem for Schmidt is that his decision to ignore Zebo doesn't stack up. The Munster wing is probably the most naturally talented footballer in the country. He is scoring tries for fun with Munster at the moment and he is quicker than both of the wings selected.

With Tommy Bowe still not 100pc and Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald out injured, Zebo's place in the Ireland team should be a foregone conclusion. Instead he will be sitting at home this afternoon, the quickest feet in Ireland relaxing from the comfort of the couch. It doesn't make sense.

Italy are without their captain and talisman Sergio Parisse. His absence is a huge blow to their ambition of a first ever championship win in Dublin. Parisse is the best No 8 in the world; everything the Italians do, in attack and defence, goes through him. His loss is unquantifiable.

In Parisse's absence, Robert Barbieri offers aggression and strength from the base of the scrum but there the comparison with his captain ends.

Contrary to previous meetings between the sides where Ireland struggled to maintain parity in the scrum, Ireland's improvements in the front-row have been such that the visitors can expect a tough afternoon.

Italy's line-out is also vulnerable without Alessandro Zanni. Most of Leonardo Ghiraldini's throws over the last four years have targeted the Treviso back-row, and without Zanni and Parisse to aim at today, the hooker's options are limited.

Italy coach Jacques Brunel has picked Luciano Orquera at fly-half ahead of Tommaso Allan. Orquera is a running fly-half who takes the ball flat and loves to release his centres at every opportunity.

His introduction late in the Scotland match increased the pace of the attack and he played a key role in the try for Joshua Furno. The best way to stop Italy is to get at the Zebre No 10.

Chris Henry and Iain Henderson have a job to do. Blitz defence will push Orquera outside of his comfort zone and force him to take the ball deeper than he would ordinarily be comfortable with.

If Ireland stop Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro from getting the ball, they will nullify Italy's threat out wide.

Orquera's running philosophy has the ability to cause problems in the home defence but if the Ireland back-row hit him early and close down his space he will struggle to impose himself on the game. Kicking out of hand is not Orquera's strong point.

Rob Kearney has the perfect opportunity to impose himself on proceedings.

Ireland will look to dominate possession through the pack, freeing the full-back from the burden of defensive duties, allowing him more of a free rein in attack.

The Leinster man can cause damage with his lines of attack and his reading of the game but we are not seeing enough of his offensive skills in an Ireland jersey. This afternoon he can have no excuses.

The occasion is bound to be emotional for Brian O'Driscoll who will play his last ever home international.

Fans at the Aviva Stadium have one last chance to see the world's most capped international in the flesh. I hope his performance does justice to the occasion.

The result this afternoon is not in doubt.

In Rome, Italy were very poor against one of the worst Scotland teams in history and while Brunel has paid lip service to improving their performance today, Ireland will not allow Italy the opportunity to atone.

O'Driscoll's final home game will end in an Ireland victory; a fitting way for the greatest centre of the modern era to bid farewell to his fans.

Irish Independent

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