Friday 23 February 2018

Schmidt's depth charge

Cupboard still alarmingly bare in several positions as Ireland coach looks to build squad with 2019 World Cup in mind

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
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Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This week at Ireland's training base in Kildare, the focus has been fully on beating Italy and getting a first win of 2016.

Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff have selected a team with that one goal in mind and have drilled their squad accordingly. Off the field, they have done their analysis and treated the Italians as seriously as they would any other Six Nations opponents.

A record of one draw and two defeats has denied the champions a third title in a row and, while the head coach has admitted that he is feeling the pressure to deliver a much-needed result, the fact that he is not fighting for places at the top of the table might have afforded him some breathing space when it comes to selection.

While his sole focus is on the game itself, at the end of the tournament Schmidt will step back from his day-to-day work and again ask: How deep is my squad?

It is a perennial work in progress, but with key players out injured and Paul O'Connell retired, it has never been a more pertinent question.

Ireland's depth was tested more than anyone could ever have imagined in the loss to Argentina at last year's World Cup when O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien were ruled out, Jared Payne had already gone and Tommy Bowe went off early on.

It was obvious that, beneath the top layer of talent, there was either a lack of quality or experience and the onus is on Schmidt and his coaching ticket to ensure that lessons are learnt.

When he met the media before Christmas, IRFU performance director David Nucifora made the point that the union had failed to learn the lesson of the previous World Cup and the focus on building depth is behind his strict control of overseas imports and the will to move players between the provinces.

"One of the concerns is that we don't want to be sitting here in 2019 talking about the 2015 and 2011 reports," he said.

"Some of the topics now have to be met head on if we are to make sure we are getting beyond a quarter-final. I'm not sure, is it five or six quarter-finals now? Whatever it is, it's too many and we need to be getting into the real business end of World Cups.

"That's not going to happen unless we actively change. If we keep doing what we've always done, we're going to keep getting quarter-finals."

Progressing beyond the last eight of the 2019 World Cup should be the all-encompassing goal for Irish rugby for the next three years.

Winning titles and beating southern hemisphere giants will only help towards that goal, but the national coach should not be exempt from that requirement to change.

There must also be an onus on Schmidt to blood players, something the former Leinster supremo has been criticised for not doing enough of - even if he has stridently defended his record this week.

If he comes off the bench this afternoon, Finlay Bealham will be the fifth Irish debutant in this year's Six Nations and the eighth since the World Cup warm-ups began in August.

On Thursday, the head coach was keen to point out that he has introduced 21 players to international rugby during his 30 games in charge since taking over in 2013, a period in which he has used 66 players.

Of that number, O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Felix Jones, Kevin McLaughlin, Damien Varley and Declan Fitzpatrick have retired, meaning the remaining 59 are available to him.

That's one shy of four teams, but a closer look at the numbers shows that 10 of those players were never invited back for a second cap.

Of the 668 caps that have been awarded during Schmidt's time in charge, 69pc have been won by a group of 23 players.

Although he has spoken about places being up for grabs, the head coach has largely stuck to a hierarchical selection policy since taking over, with the starting XV that played against New Zealand in 2013 forming the backbone, aside from the re-jigged centre partnership that was brought about by O'Driscoll's retirement.

Of today's team, four players were handed their debuts by Schmidt and of those, if he had a full and fit hand to pick from, only Payne would be guaranteed a start.

Sexton has started every game he has been available for, but the failure to blood an alternative came back to haunt Ireland in Cardiff.

"I'll give you an example of that, if we use Ian Madigan," Nucifora said. "The reason why the small issues do make a difference; Ian, in the two years leading into the World Cup played only a handful of games for his province as a starting No 10.

"Ian then goes on to be required to be the starting No 10 in the quarter-final of the World Cup. Is that the perfect preparation? I would say not. There's things like that in our system that aren't perfect and unless we address that type of detail, we're not going to be getting on top of some of the challenges that we're faced with."

Now the IRFU's focus around Madigan has been centred on ensuring that a player of his potential's way won't be blocked by an overseas signing like Jimmy Gopperth again, but at no point during his two years in charge that preceded the World Cup did Schmidt rest Sexton in order to enhance his back-ups.

That is in stark contrast with his fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen, who took an almighty gamble in last year's Super Rugby clash against South Africa in Johannesburg, starting the in-form Lima Sopoaga against the Springboks.

He sparkled and the All Blacks won. Sopoaga was put back in cold storage as Dan Carter led New Zealand to the Webb Ellis Cup, but if the unthinkable had happened the main man, he at least had the comfort of knowing what the next man in line could do.

Out-half is one of a few areas where Schmidt would like more depth. Like Sexton, Conor Murray is a player that Ireland can barely afford to lose as Kieran Marmion waits patiently for a shot, while the second-row stocks look callow in the wake of O'Connell's departure.

The most stark scenario remains tighthead prop, where the 36-year-old Mike Ross remains the undisputed first choice, with 34-year-old Nathan White his back-up.

Although national scrum coach Greg Feek talked up the options for the No 3 jersey this week, it is telling that no tighthead was offered a national contract during contract season. It is the only position where all the contenders will remain on provincial deals next season.

Ireland have looked overseas to solve their shortage at tighthead, with White and Rodney Ah You already winning caps after serving their three years, while Ulster's Wiehahn Herbst was name-checked by Feek ahead of his qualification next year.

He won't be the only 'special project' who will augment Schmidt's options in the coming seasons, with Connacht quartet Quinn Roux (already qualified), Jake Heenan (2016), Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney (both 2017) all becoming available in the next 20 months.

Whatever your feelings about the residency laws, their addition to the cause will undoubtedly strengthen the head coach's hand, but the feeling remains that he has more of a role to play.

Irish Independent

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