Wednesday 20 March 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: ''Tinkerman' Joe Schmidt still looking for Cup formula'

Ireland coach has not named the same team in successive matches since 2017

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Much has been made of Jacques Brunel's decision to name an unchanged team for Sunday's clash with Ireland at the Aviva Stadium and for good reason: it is the first time Les Bleus have been unchanged since 2012, the first time in the Six Nations since 2003.

The French approach to combinations has been the subject of much mystery in this part of the world, but it may surprise fans to learn that Joe Schmidt has not retained the same team for 23 Test matches.

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The last time he named the same starting XV came at the same stage of the 2017 Six Nations campaign, when his team beat France at home and then went to Cardiff on a Friday night with 22 of the same 23 players - Andrew Trimble replaced Tommy Bowe in the No 23 jersey.

Over the course of those 23 matches, Schmidt has made an average of seven changes a game and looks set to do the same when he announces his line-up to face the French this lunchtime.

When Claudio Ranieri took squad rotation to a new level at Chelsea he was nicknamed 'The Tinkerman'.

It wasn't very complimentary, but time has shone favourably on the Italian's approach.

Across elite sports, the need to manage resources has only increased in subsequent years and no one bats an eyelid when coaches go down the rotation route.

In international rugby, injury always plays a part and it is increasingly rare that a team does not lose at least one player between games.

Yet the coaches crave continuity as they look to build form.

Schmidt has always been a fan of building combinations, but he has also learnt from the shuddering World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina. He knows he needs depth above all else.

During this Six Nations, he has made sweeping changes - some enforced, some by choice.

He made five changes from the defeat to England to the win over Scotland and then changed four for the trip to Rome.

On Sunday, it looks like he'll revert to close to his strongest team with seven changes from that win; certainly it bears real similarity to the one that beat the All Blacks in November and lost to England.

Rob Kearney may have begun the Six Nations wondering where he stood, but he'll finish in firm possession of the No 15 shirt, while the places of wingers Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale are written in stone.

Although injury is always going to be a factor, the level of attrition in Ireland's midfield has been quite remarkable and only once has the coach had to pick between a fully fit Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell.

On that day, he went with Henshaw at full-back with Ringrose and Aki in the centres. The Athlone native has been out since, but Ringrose is back in harness this week and set to bring something different to the Irish attack from the No 13 jersey after Farrell stepped in against Scotland and Italy and did a decent job. Henshaw has not started at centre for Ireland all season.

There are a couple of near untouchables in the set-up and Ireland's half-backs lead that group. Joey Carbery might have been considered for one of the remaining Six Nations games, but he's injured, and so Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will continue at numbers 9 and 10.

The front-row has assumed a formidably familiar look, with Cian Healy firmly wresting the loosehead spot back from Jack McGrath with captain Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong firmly first choice.

With Devin Toner out for the tournament, this has been a chance to deepen the resources in the engine room and, after Connacht pair Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux started against Italy, Iain Henderson and James Ryan are expected to start for the first time since linking up against Argentina in November. Tadhg Beirne might come off the bench.

Immovable

After two weeks starting at openside, Seán O'Brien is dropped in favour of Josh van der Flier, as CJ Stander returns to the No 8 jersey that was kept warm for him by Jack Conan and Jordi Murphy. Vice-captain Peter O'Mahony looks immovable in the No 6 shirt.

If he can get fit, Dan Leavy will have a big say in the back-row selection but his one appearance this season came off the bench against the Pumas in November.

Schmidt has continued to use this Six Nations to hone in on his World Cup selection, offering opportunity through selection. Some players, like Quinn Roux, have enhanced their chances of getting to Japan; others, like Seán Cronin, have done damage.

As a result of his tinkering with selection, Schmidt has vastly more knowledge of what he's selecting from. Amidst it all, the first-choice team is taking shape and he'll expect them to deliver against France.

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