Sport Six Nations

Friday 17 November 2017

The Big Debate: Is it time for Schmidt to wield the axe?

Yes: If players were at fault for Murrayfield mess, then coaches should consider change, writes David Kelly

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

David Kelly and Ruaidhri O'Connor

In the absence, it seems in public airings at least, of nobody amongst the coaching staff readily absorbing any real sense of culpability for what was quite obviously a bum day at the office, one must assume, then, that the players are taking the full rap.

When the team to play Italy is unveiled tomorrow, we may find out exactly which ones will suffer the unkindest cut of all.

The head coach appeared to many observers to immediately offload the blame towards the players with his clumsy metaphorical juxtaposition of the squad's late arrival to the pitch with their first-half tardiness.

The defence coach, Andy Farrell, did at least suggest that the coaches will look at themselves first but even he deflected much of the blame for his latest leak-infested 80 minutes by questioning the "mood" of his players.

This was also a line of inquiry followed by Schmidt, who advised that just because a side had become used to starting well in Test matches, it didn't necessarily transpire that this would happen on every occasion.

It would be far better if the head coach took upon himself the responsibility of defeat but that moment has passed as he plans for inevitable Italian victory; the tougher tests arrive later in a Championship which can still be won.

The simple solution for Schmidt would be to ensure that an unchanged side simply deliver upon what their coaching staff - and also the players themselves - acknowledge was a completely unacceptable standard of performance. Then again, surely a squad that achieved three southern hemisphere scalps - two of them historic - within the last nine months deserves a second opportunity?

Given that Ireland will beat Italy and face none of the defensive posers that so mystified them in Murrayfield, one might conceivably question the point of making radical changes at all.

Maybe. Then again, so many of the team under-performed - as well as their coaching staff - that one could quite easily make an argument that every single starter could face the axe. Clearly, that won't happen in all areas.

An axe is perhaps too blunt an instrument to wield; this is not the 1990s and Schmidt is much too astute to flail wildly about like some prehistoric pea-brain; perhaps a scalpel is a more appropriate, if less headline-grabbing, instrument for change.

Assumption

Ireland face a different challenge this week; they need to attack and score as many tries as possible in order to retrieve the lost ground from opening-day defeat; a different emphasis is needed.

Hence, an immediate assumption is there is no need for three back-row behemoths to carry; instead one is required to link between backs and forwards to expand the attacking horizon, rather than narrow it.

Any one of the three back-rows should be dispensable; especially for a game such as this. Josh van der Flier is an obvious introduction but, if Peter O'Mahony is also fit and recalling the dismantled lineout last week, why not evict two of the three back-rowers?

Take your pick from any of Heaslip, Stander and O'Brien. Heaslip is purportedly undroppable - and rotation will be the politely ascribed word - but why shouldn't a statement of intent reverberate around a squad who, so recently, were world-beaters?

Iain Henderson could return to the bench - if he is lucky - after his try failed to cover up another average display.

Removing Stander wouldn't imperil Irish victory either while if O'Brien really does need game-time, why should he be afforded it on international duty, especially as O'Mahony must surely come into the side?

And attacking players need to be placed in their best position which immediately places the focus on Simon Zebo supplanting Rob Kearney; indeed, the argument for a Munster back-three on form is compelling.

It is folly to make too much change in the front five but when, as they will, the Italians weaken by the 50th minute - as they did against Wales - Schmidt's axe/scalpel must allow trust in his bench to roam in Rome.

Ireland won a title two years ago with a bench racking up points against hapless Italians; Schmidt left three of his replacements on the bench last weekend, a startling omission and two others made negative impressions.

Schmidt doled out 16 new caps in 2016 in an effort to ensure the lack of squad depth that undermined the 2015 World Cup challenge was not repeated; a free throw against Italy allows him now to test put theory into practice without damaging title hopes.

No: These players have earned the chance to turn their campaign around, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor

WE thought Ireland had moved beyond days like Saturday, that Joe Schmidt had brought the team beyond the days when we didn't know which team was going to show up.

Consistency of performance is the goal every team aspires to and the market leaders are New Zealand and England who trust that even on their bad days they can get the job done.

Ireland aspire to live in that company and after a thrilling November there was evidence to suggest that they do. On Saturday, they looked like a different team.

Fans, pundits and, most importantly, the set-up themselves are searching for answers why they failed to show up on the biggest day of the year. Everything seemed to be going so well until they took to the pitch at Murrayfield and got blown away by Scotland.

This week, they are clinging to the manner of their comeback as the main positive they took home from Edinburgh. Failing to capitalise on their momentum by going on to win the game rivals their slow start as a disappointment.

As he approached the tournament, Schmidt would have viewed this week's game against Italy as perhaps the only window he has to introduce any new blood to his team but having capped 18 new players last season there is little pressure on him to widen the pool.

The priority now is for Ireland to win. Their best chance of doing so is by sending the same team into action with a message that their levels of performance last weekend were unacceptable.

Ireland didn't become a bad team overnight and the stalwarts Schmidt trusts are not suddenly bad players.

They showed during the first 20 minutes of the second half that they are capable of far better and if they can hit that pitch for 80 against Italy then they'll be back on the right track.

Schmidt's scope for change is limited by injury.

One of the major issues on Saturday was the lack of impact from the bench, aside from Cian Healy, and it's not like any of the players introduced have forced his hand.

Argument

If he was fully fit, there would be a strong argument for Peter O'Mahony lending some height to the back-row after the Irish back-row was put under severe pressure by Scotland.

The problem for Schmidt is finding a back-row to drop. In these pages yesterday, Tony Ward suggested Jamie Heaslip could make way for Josh van der Flier, but the vice-captain is a key leadership figure who rarely has a bad game. It's unlikely he'll have another one this week.

In the second-row, there is scope to swap the in-form Donnacha Ryan in for Iain Henderson but Schmidt likes the Ulster man's dynamism, while the front-row will likely stay intact after their dominant scrummaging display last weekend.

Behind the scrum, Conor Murray remains untouchable despite his disappointing outing in Scotland, while Johnny Sexton's woes mean Paddy Jackson will get another outing at out-half.

The combination of Robbie Henshaw (23) and Garry Ringrose (22) is worth sticking with, while Andrew Trimble's return may see a shake-up in the back-three but he is more likely to come on to the bench ahead of Tommy Bowe.

With the 2019 World Cup in mind, the age-profile of last week's backline is good and with Jared Payne still out, there is no more experienced player who can come in and shore up the defence. Building those combinations is worth the investment.

Perhaps the scope for change will come on the bench where Ultan Dillane may benefit from 80 minutes with Connacht which would allow Ryan join the replacements, while Trimble may offer more than Bowe did.

There are those who will demand change and shout the names of Tiernan O'Halloran or Jack Conan from the rooftops, but this is competition and the margin for error has now tightened.

Ireland need five points in Rome and that will mean Schmidt picking his strongest possible team.

It is only last week that they were being touted as world-beaters and the challenge now is to arrest the momentum back in their favour in the manner of the 2013 Wales team.

If they can learn from Edinburgh and bring the correct levels of intensity and the right tactical approach to their remaining games, they'll be a force to be reckoned with.

Now is not the time to make sweeping changes - Schmidt should keep his axe in the block.

Irish Independent

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