Sunday 19 November 2017

Schmidt sticks to tried and trusted to get results

Of the four new boys, only CJ Stander is likely to be involved against Wales as Ireland bid for three titles in a row

Joe Schmidt is unlikely to throw any of his fresh faces in at the deep end. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt is unlikely to throw any of his fresh faces in at the deep end. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The calls for change were loud and persistent during the stunned aftermath of Ireland's World Cup hammering at the hands of Argentina, but Joe Schmidt was never going to take a scythe to his squad and start all over again.

The head coach has kept his counsel since that devastating afternoon in Cardiff, giving one fluffy interview to the Late, Late Show and declining all other opportunities to speak about rugby.

Yesterday, he unveiled his first squad of the new four-year cycle. Many of his decisions had been signposted by the names that escaped from the closed camp he held at Christmas, while his installation of Rory Best as captain was the sensible call.

While Schmidt has held his tongue, it seems clear from the comments of others and subsequent events that a large part of the blame for 43-20 defeat to the Pumas has been laid at the door of the devastating combination of injury and suspension that deprived Schmidt of five key players.

That exacerbated a lack of depth, which the union blame on a lack provincial game-time for those called up to replace the famous five, Jordi Murphy and Ian Madigan in particular, and a chronic start and dreadful defensive performance.

While the first two of those issues are being addressed via IRFU performance director David Nucifora, the third is a performance matter.

Yet, when Ireland take the field against Wales next month there is unlikely to be wholesale changes in personnel.

While the World Cup can seem all-encompassing, the Six Nations remains a key financial driver in Irish rugby and, as such, is treated seriously by the union.

Nucifora has already indicated that retaining the title is the primary goal for Schmidt in 2016 and so he was never going to do much experimenting in those circumstances.

For one thing, the head coach is still picking from the same pool of talent that he was before a World Cup that was going so well until Argentina came along.

Of the 23 from that day, Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Chris Henry are out for the first two games, Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson are on the long-term injury list and Murphy is dropped; meaning 17 remain. Add in the returned Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne and Sean O'Brien, and you begin to see a familiar side emerging.

With Paul O'Connell retired and Peter O'Mahony, Henderson, Dan Tuohy and Bowe unavailable, Schmidt has introduced some new blood in the uncapped quartet of Ultan Dillane, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey, while there are recalls for James Cronin, Rob Herring, Tommy O'Donnell, Mike McCarthy and Andrew Trimble.

Of the four new faces, only Stander appears to have a realistic involvement against Wales, most likely as an impact replacement.

Jamie Heaslip has been named vice-captain and brings with him vast experience, meaning he is almost guaranteed a start at No 8, while Rhys Ruddock has been outstanding for Leinster in recent weeks and knows Schmidt's systems in and out.

Those two and O'Brien are playing together at Leinster and combining well, meaning a solid combination for the coach to rely on.

That is often the key to the New Zealander's selection policy.

There is an argument for pitching 22-year-old Connacht second-row Dillane in for his energy, physicality and work rate, but Mike McCarthy is in fine form and has been working in tandem with Devin Toner all season.


There will be a new-look front-row. Ross's hamstring injury meaning his unbroken run of 24 Six Nations starts since 2011 comes to an end, meaning he and Healy are out until game three against England at the earliest, all of which points to an experienced second-row pairing with an emphasis on scrummaging ability.

Behind the scrum, the half-back pairing is a given despite both Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton's struggles for form and fitness, while Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are likely to remain Schmidt's preferred partnership ahead of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall - the form duo in the provinces.

The back-three presents a conundrum, with the returned Trimble likely to be reinstated after missing the World Cup in a selection Schmidt probably regrets, with Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Dave Kearney and Simon Zebo vying for the second wing berth.

The Munster man may also have an eye on Rob Kearney's No 15 shirt, but his poor display in Paris two weeks ago won't have gone unnoticed and the Louth native is a trusted member of Schmidt's core group.

Under Schmidt, opportunity for new faces has largely come off the bench. The coach has rotated his replacements over time, but the new men may have to wait a while as the schedule is stacked towards the front-end of Ireland's campaign and the six-day turnaround between Wales and France.

James Cronin is almost certain to win his third cap against Wales in Healy's absence after Dave Kilcoyne missed out, while Stander is also primed to make his debut in that game. McCloskey's opportunities to go that route will be limited given Schmidt's record of selecting players who can cover a multitude of positions in the No's 22 and 23 jerseys, while Dillane has a battle with Donnacha Ryan on his hands if he wants to cover the second-row.

The coach did make reference to "very promising youngsters" who are being allowed "a bit more time to develop as well as the opportunity of further game time with their provinces" in the press release that accompanied the squad.

Garry Ringrose and Luke McGrath are certainly in that bracket, with Schmidt opting not to bow to the heavyweight endorsements coming the centre's way following a stunning run of form in blue.

The 20-year-old has time on his side and may yet appear at Carton House during training, but the three-Test summer tour of South Africa may be a more realistic debut date.

Perhaps the unluckiest player to miss out is Munster's Mike Sherry who has been excellent in recent weeks.

The hooker has had his injury woes, but finds himself below Leinster and Ulster's second-choice No 2s in the pecking order.

Kilcoyne, Dave Foley, Craig Gilroy and Jordi Murphy will also be disappointed not to make the cut, but none can have serious complaints over the non-selection. For all the calls for a revolution in style, it appears unlikely that Schmidt will attempt major surgery on his game-plan given the time constraints at play and the heavyweight opponents ahead.

Having had one 24-hour get-together since the World Cup, Ireland come into camp next week ahead of the opener against Wales and will have limited pitch-time to put together their plans. Those short on game-time like Henshaw are likely to be released to their provinces for the round of Guinness Pro12 games next week, meaning their time together will be squeezed further.

So, the coach will select what he feels is his strongest side for what will be a must-win game. His perception of players might have been affected by the 80 minutes that unfolded on October 18, but it won't have changed utterly.

Predicted match-day 23 for Ireland v Wales: R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), N White; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: R Strauss, J Cronin, M Moore, D Ryan, CJ Stander, E Reddan, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald.

Irish Independent

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