Friday 6 December 2019

The Irish Independent Six Nations panel on O'Connell, Schmidt and our chances

Jonathan Sexton. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland captain Rory Best Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

The Six Nations is fast approaching and Joe Schmidt has made his first move, picking his 35-man squad for the opening games and appointing Rory Best as his new captain. Our panel of experts take a look at the hard questions for the New Zealander as he looks to bounce back from yet another World Cup quarter-final exit.

For all the disappointment that followed that defeat to Argentina in October, there is history on the line for Ireland next month as they go in search of a third Championship in succession – a feat no team has ever achieved.

Yet they must do it without the retired Paul O’Connell and the injured Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and Tommy Bowe.

The schedule is difficult, pitting them against Warren Gatland’s Wales at home, before visiting Paris and London to face French and English sides hoping for a post-World Cup lift from new coaching tickets. By the time they take on Italy and Scotland, who knows what shape Ireland will be in?

Schmidt will know he has selection dilemmas to face, while he must also address the perceived limitations in Ireland’s style of play. He goes into the tournament without a recognised defence coach and will take more responsibility on his own shoulders.

There are plenty of questions for the head coach to answer ahead of the big kickoff in two weeks’ time.

The Irish Independent’s expert jury assess the key issues ahead of the tournament and pick their teams to face Wales in that make-or-break opener.

The questions

In the wake of yet another World Cup quarter-final exit, should Joe Schmidt risk a third successive Championship by adopting a more attacking game-plan during the Six Nations?

Tony Ward: The twin goals of winning a third Six Nations on the bounce and doing it through a more expansive modus operandi are far from mutually exclusive. Of course he must cut his cloth to measure and play to his strengths but those strengths should embrace a measured element of risk by way of an off loading tactic appropriate to the moment. A little less slavish box kicking and a little more keeping ball in hand would be a sensible step in the right direction.

George Hook: Without question. Not a single northern hemisphere nation reached the semi final of the World Cup, which only serves to underline the poor standard of rugby being played in Europe at the moment. I refuse to believe that paid professionals cannot learn to off-load the ball.

Vincent Hogan: Personally, yes I think he should take a few risks and, having won back-to-back titles, he is entitled to think he might have a freepass here. But the IRFU always makes clear to its national coach that they consider success in the Six Nations as their bread and butter so, yet again, the emphasis will be on short-term gain.

David Kelly: Yes. The IRFU have under-budgeted in successive Six Nations campaigns and over-achieved their designated ambitions for what constitutes success. The World Cup, rather than stemming a more expansive approach, should be the catalyst for one. And it is not as if there isn't a precedent – Murrayfield 2015, anyone?

Ruaidhri O'Connor: The World Cup showed that an ability to identify and attack space and keep ball in hand is the way forward, but Schmidt will point to a lack of preparation time and Ireland’s relative lack of size. However, four years out from Japan, there must be scope to innovate and develop a more attractive, effective attacking style of play.

Alan Quinlan: The biggest risk would be to keep things as they are because if we are to win another Championship, it’s vital that we become more expansive in style. No way should we sacrifice this year’s Six Nations, though. Planning ahead is all well and good but results matter. A lot.

Sinead Kissane: Winning the Six Nations and developing a more attacking game-plan shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Can’t both be done? Post-RWC, it would be encouraging to see a development in style and perhaps the word “off-load” shouldn’t be such a dirty word this season – think of Keith Earls beautiful off-load against Romania in the Rugby World Cup which led to a try. We have the talent. Let’s use it.

Is Rory Best the right man to captain Ireland?

Tony Ward: Unequivocally the right call for the upcoming campaign. Rory is a natural leader through word and action.

George Hook: Yes. At 33 years of age, he is not a long-term appointment, but Best appears to have the respect of the players and he is a guaranteed starter. Best will do the job until Robbie Henshaw is ready to take over.

Vincent Hogan: Yes I believe he is. Sean O’Brien might have been a stronger con­tender I would imagine but for his injury profile. Best is a hugely admirable figure who performs with massive consistency and is clearly well liked (and respected) right across the board. He will undoubtedly have the backing of the group.

David Kelly: Yes. The other leading con­tenders have too many ques­tion marks surrounding their candidacy. Sean O’Brien is, sadly, betrayed by his body and there are no guarantees this status will change; Jamie Heaslip would be dogged by his previous, unhappy incarnation in the role, while Jonathan Sexton carries enough burdens as the coach’s on-field influence and place-kicker as it is.

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Undoubtedly. The hooker has proven his worth in recent years and can handle both the on and off-pitch commitments of the job. Surrounded by strong senior players, he’ll have others to lean on.

Alan Quinlan: Yes, 100pc.

Sinead Kissane:  Yes. He’s a natural born leader. He has an easy authority and seems to carry himself as a cap­tain should around the camp. On top of that, he simply deserves to have his time as Ireland captain. A worthy choice post-O’Driscoll and O’Connell.

France and England have new coaches for this year’s tournament, how do you think they’ll fare under Guy Noves and Eddie Jones?

Tony Ward: Noves and Jones take over at a time when both European super powers are at a post-World Cup low. England were bad but the French were even worse. They both believe in the All Black blueprint to success (or in Noves’ case the Gallic ways of old). Expect that to be reflected in performance and return.

George Hook:  It remains to be seen how many tricks the old dog Noves still has up his sleeve. His selection of Fi­jian Sevens flier Virimi Vakatawa suggests he is open to radical change. For the sake of the game, I hope France revert back to the old habits of running, passing and counter-attack. Jones has been a hit with his squad selection where the dead wood and under performing senior guys have been shelved to make way for the next generation. Even if his project takes time to come to fruition, Jones should be commended for this long-term approach.

Vincent Hogan: I suspect the appointment of Noves has come five or six years too late for France. He has long been the most charismatic coaching figure in the country, but I’m just not sure he has the same aura about him anymore. Jones is a superb technical coach and a brilliant appoint­ment by England. They would be my tip for the title.

David Kelly: Both men will, as should be the case after disastrous World Cup experiences, attempt to re-draw the parameters of international engagement and welcome new voices. Both men have already indicated a change of tack; admittedly, England will seek to recreate the spirit of 2003 as much as inject a new one, while Noves will allow his players, at last, some freedom of expression.

Ruaidhri O'Connor: England look to have made the shrewder appointment in the Australian who looks to have shaken things up at Twickenham, while Noves has work to do to convince the wider audience that he is still relevant. England have excellent young players and should thrive, while France will continue to struggle as long as the Top 14 exerts such a toll on their players.

Alan Quinlan: Expect a new England under Jones. There is an aura around him now on the back of what he did with Japan at the World Cup and the fixture list favours him, too. I expect England to win four out of five and expect France to improve, too. Enough to win the Championship? No. But they’ll improve

Sinead Kissane: You would imagine this should be an easy job for Noves! Get the players a solid and clear gameplan which is tailored to their talents – mainly missing under Saint Andre – and get the team working together and for each other then it’s bingo, surely! It will be intriguing to see how Eddie Jones works it with England. The above about France could equally apply to him.

After losing Paul O’Connell, can Ireland make history and win another Six Nations title?

Tony Ward: For every team excluding the Italians (and yes that includes the Scots) this Six Nations is winnable. It is a post-World Cup journey into the unknown. There is no form going into the opening round of matches so once again first day wins will feed into confi­dence and momentum particu­larly with the Welsh in Dublin and the English in Edinburgh.

George Hook: No. A stale squad selection, coupled with a predictable, bland style of rugby will not be enough to win the tournament this year. If Schmidt isn’t prepared to adapt his coaching style, Ireland will be found out.

Vincent Hogan: I don’t believe so. If it’s taken us almost 70 years to win two in a row, it’s hardly logical to be optimistic about our chances of going one better now, particu­larly given the injury casualties. I suspect that it’s going to be a challenging campaign for Joe Schmidt, especially given the away games in Paris and London.

David Kelly: It will be extremely difficult, especially given the question marks that still surround Ireland’s strength in depth, which was, despite repeated claims to the contrary beforehand, utterly exposed during the World Cup. Scotland, France and England will be better than last year and Wales, even at home, provide a consistently difficult challenge.

Ruaidhri O'Connor: No. The second-row’s retirement has left them short of a talisman­ic figure, while he also leaves a vacuum in the middle of the pack where there are no obvious candi­dates to take over. The schedule is far more favourable to Wales who look the by far strongest contenders.

Alan Quinlan: They certainly can win another title. Will they? I’m not so sure. Away days in Paris and London don’t help. Nor does a fixture list that opens with two really attri­tional games. I’m convinced it’ll come down to points difference again.

Sinead Kissane: Yes they can. There are still huge­ly talented players in this squad and ones who will look to atone for the RWC quarter-final exit. The loss of O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony has been deeply felt in Munster this season. Second-row looks a little light, especially with Iain Henderson out. But Mike McCarthy has been ploughing it up for Leinster. However the approach should be to always get the best players on the pitch so I would love to see Ruddock tried out in the second-row. I still expect Schmidt to get the very best out of these players.

Which player are you most looking forward to watching during the Six Nations and why?

Tony Ward: They say in your second season of test rugby, as the name gets bigger the gaps get smaller. I expect Anthony Watson to be the exception to that exaggerated rule. Watson has the potential to become the northern hemisphere equivalent of Israel Folau. The similarities are uncanny, all he needs is the right man to unleash the genie and in Jones he might now be in place.

George Hook: Virimi Vakatawa. For anyone that hasn’t seen him play, the guy has electric pace and the best hand-off since Jonah Lomu. It would take an incredibly brave selection decision to play him, but France need something spe­cial to reignite the national team. For Ireland, I’m looking forward to seeing CJ Stander get a start at No 8.

Vincent Hogan: Well I was looking forward to Garry Ringrose, though I don’t necessarily disagree with Schmidt’s decision to delay his introduction to this level of com­bat. Sticking with the Irish theme, I would hope to see action for Stuart McCloskey, who has been going from strength to strength in the No 12 shirt with Ulster.

David Kelly: Virimi Vakatawa. A Fijian and a former Sevens player under the watchful eye of the avuncular Noves, who has vowed to build a team. He will make many mistakes but they will be wonderful mistakes.

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Sean O’Brien can make 2016 his year. Pound for pound, he is Ire­land’s most effective performer and is now in the prime of his life. Wasn’t happy with the French histrionics during his hearing over the Pascal Pape punch at the World Cup so his Paris adven­tures should be worth watching.

Alan Quinlan: Stuart McCloskey, providing of course he is picked. I hope he is, though, because the guy is explosive. Nothing fazes him. The bigger the opponent, the bigger the stage, the better as far as he’s concerned. The idea of a McCloskey-Henshaw partnership excites me, as does our depth in the centre department.

Sinead Kissane: If Dylan Hartley is named England captain, it is going to be riveting to see how he handles himself in this role. I would like to see Stuart McCloskey get a run in the centre at some stage alongside Robbie Henshaw and maybe a game with Jared Payne at full-back.

What starting XV should Schmidt select against Wales on February 7?

Tony Ward: R Kearney; Trimble, Henshaw, McCloskey, Zebo; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best, White; Ryan, Ton­er; Ruddock, O’Brien, Heaslip.

George Hook: Henshaw; Fitzgerald, Ringrose, McCloskey, Healy; Sexton, McGrath; J Cronin, Best, Furlong; Ryan, Dillane; O’Donoghue, O’Brien, Stander.

Vincent Hogan: R Kearney; Fitzgerald, Henshaw, McCloskey, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best, White; Toner, McCarthy; Ruddock, O’Brien, Heaslip.

David Kelly: Ireland will pick as many survivors from the Argentina humiliation they can because the IRFU demand this is so. It would be nice to see a change, some verve, some dash. Alas, it may not be so, so the team Ireland select will be: R Kearney; Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best, Moore; Ryan, Toner; Ruddock, O’Brien, Heaslip.

Ruaidhri O'Connor: R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S O’Brien. J Heaslip.

Alan Quinlan: R Kearney; Earls, Henshaw, McCloskey, Trimble; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best, White; Toner, McCarthy; O’Brien, Stander, Heaslip.

Sinead Kissane: R Kearney; Earls, Payne, Henshaw, D Kearney; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best, Moore; Toner, Ruddock; Stander, O’Brien, Heaslip.

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: The problem with the Champions Cup, the Stephen Larkham effect and trouble in Welsh rugby

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport