Saturday 14 December 2019

The Ireland selection dilemmas facing Joe Schmidt

David Kelly

David Kelly

For all the talk of four-year World Cup cycles - pretty irrelevant in Ireland if the coach has only been contracted until halfway through it - another four-year cycle looms large this week.

Four years ago, Wales came to Dublin, won and promptly completed a Grand Slam. Four years earlier, Wales had patented the same trick.

History shadows this tournament more than the future - it is swathed in pomp and ceremony and few dare to cast eyes far beyond where the next three points are coming from. Or where the next three pints are coming from.

Joe Schmidt is stuck in a similar bind, too. On Friday, he must pick a team to beat Wales in Dublin 4 this weekend - not one that might beat them in Yokohama in three years.

Lose to Wales and Ireland head to France already two points behind two of their chief championship rivals; three, if England beat Scotland.

Win and their confidence will be boosted before visiting a France side who have failed to trouble Schmidt's men for some time.


Some of us would rather he scan towards the future and subtly revamp the reliance on the boot - but with steady evolution rather than revolution, contrary to the rugby intelligentsia who scoff from atop ivory towers that one is suggesting playing Sevens rugby with the cast of the U-20s. Injury will influence Schmidt; Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, Cian Healy, Mike Ross would have been certain starters. Paul O'Connell is no more. There will be an illusion of change with four casualties from that quarter-final humiliation against Argentina.

The World Cup exposed the mythical strength in depth that Ireland's players and coaches had boastfully crowed about for months and years previously; this urgency will force the selectors' hands more than nebulous concepts like building for World Cups.

Events will dictate because, with a denuded front five, Ireland may simply have to adjust their style and selection policy as the championship proceeds.


The captain is the last man standing in what is clearly a depleted threesome; Mike Ross has started every important Ireland game under Schmidt, often spurning the need for warm-up games.

With Marty Moore crocked and facing certain IRFU excommunication - unless there's a crisis, don't you know - Tadhg Furlong may be the ball-playing future but Connacht's overseas recruit Nathan White is the steadying now.


Devin Toner becomes the lineout caller and Mike McCarthy may get the nod here for, if Schmidt is going to delineate some areas of his selection based on form, the Leinster player trumps rival Donnacha Ryan.

He is a stout scrummager too. For, if Ireland have no set-piece solidity, it doesn't matter if they want to play Barbarians rugby or Bish-Bosh rugby because there is only one ball and you can't play any kind of game without it.


The clarion call for CJ Stander remains cacophonous; some feel he should not be playing for Ireland but the good folks in World Rugby make the crazy rules; the IRFU merely abide by them.

He is challenging Jamie Heaslip strongly but the Leinster player's form has not fallen off a cliff, even though his province's did in Europe. Sean O'Brien, natch, will start at seven.

Stander could play at six but a Leinster back-row will comfort the coach; Stander, released from Munster toil, can thrive from the bench. Josh van der Flier must wait, too.


Expect Garry Ringrose's name to get another airing should Ireland lose even if his presence would not have made a difference to the result.

Luke Fitzgerald's evasion and perception is so sadly scratched; he would have automatically augmented an expansive coaching vision. Then again, he may have only worn jersey 23, as Simon Zebo may now do.

Given they will have had barely ten hours or so on the training paddock, Schmidt's manufactured midfield of converted full-backs - Robbie Henshaw/Jared Payne, which has been in place since he got this gig - will more than likely get the nod.

Keith Earls may feel he deserves to continue there on World Cup form which hasn't significantly plunged along with Munster's since; he may have to be content in a wider channel and, perhaps, the promise of some ball.

Stuart McCloskey is the bolter but can he recite the gospel by heart yet? Payne remains the classiest ball player and silkiest runner but his return to Ulster reminds us that his best work does not occur in midfield; this is the first conundrum that Schmidt faces when picking his three-quarters.

For if he tinkers with the midfield, he will unleash a domino effect and coaches are loath to make a switch which forces him to make switches elsewhere too.

Back three

The second conundrum is the form of Rob Kearney which is not at the level he demands.

Whether it is at the level Schmidt demands is questionable, too.

Payne has been running at full-back but will the coach take a significant scalpel to his back-line when large chunks of concrete have already been removed from his pack?

If Schmidt retains faith in one Kearney, he may retain faith in two, which will not be good news for Andrew Trimble, given Earls also starts.

Then again, both Kearneys could miss out and that would allow Schmidt the option of deploying Payne at full-back - aside from his offensive ability, he also possesses the defensive and aerial attributes required for the role.

And the dominos could keep falling; McCloskey to get his chance at 12, with Henshaw at 13, even if rustiness may be an issue after recent injury. Trimble and Earls would be on the wings.

Given that he already has to make so many enforced changes, opting to make this one significant tactical selection - albeit it will unleash a chain of events that will affect more than one position - as well as restoring a World Cup reject (Trimble), can present the coach as a subtle innovator who is not only fully focused on taking out Wales but also has a canny eye on evolution.

Then again, after running a team last week that featured, amongst other things, Paddy Jackson at ten, Schmidt could be keeping everyone else guessing.

If that includes himself, then the choices become even more difficult to make.

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