Sunday 22 July 2018

Tony Ward: For the ultra-meticulous Schmidt, next weekend's game is a journey into the unknown

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I have always argued that every Ireland team should be picked in the here and now. Given our relatively shallow pool of top-quality players, we generally need to be at full strength.

Right now there is a feel-good factor surrounding Irish rugby.

Our provinces haven't won anything yet, but - Ulster apart - there is a growing consistency that augurs well for the national side ahead of the Six Nations.

In addition, the depth of the Ireland squad is growing significantly.

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Of course it could all come unstuck in the opening game in Paris in seven days' time. Such is the nature of Six Nations rugby.

Look no further back than Edinburgh in the opener a year ago, while Cardiff wasn't one for the history books either.

The French, who have a new coach in Jacques Brunel, have been horribly inconsistent for several years now.

So for the ultra-meticulous Schmidt, next weekend's game is a journey into the unknown.

What he can control is how we play in units and as a collective.

Playing the French takes him out of his comfort zone where every conceivable eventuality is covered but when you don't know what to expect from the opposition, the emphasis must be on performance rather than result, however outlandish that might seem.

Schmidt isn't perfect, and while we may not agree with every principle, he usually gets it pretty close to right.

He is not afraid on occasion to go with his gut but in general squad selection is based on form, with attitude and performance in training sealing the deal.

In today's Six Nations supplement I have named my match-day for the curtain-raiser in Stade de France.

It is not by any means carved in stone but it is a line-up based on balance, scoring potential and of course securing the needs of the day.

Is it my optimal team? No. And therein lies the nub of the challenge for Schmidt: how to marry the requirement to get a result with the desire to keep building the team and the players towards the ultimate goal of the 2019 World Cup.

The 'horses for courses' approach represents the most sensible middle line, and when factoring in the unknown quantity of the French, it makes for quite a conundrum.

I find it difficult for example leaving Joey Carbery, Jack Conan, Fergus McFadden, Jacob Stockdale and Chris Farrell out of my 23 for Paris.

But if you include Carbery, an injury to Johnny Sexton would leave you exposed at out-half - Carbery has barely played in the No 10 shirt for Leinster this season; indeed he has played very little rugby at all of late, as he recovers from injury.

Similarly, if you pick Conan on the bench, instead of Josh van der Flier, you'd be short of specialist openside cover if anything were to happen to the starting No 7, Dan Leavy.

There is also a very strong case for Jack McGrath to start and Cian Healy to provide that trademark impact off the bench.

That said, can Schmidt afford to ignore Healy's excellent form for Leinster and indeed for Ireland this season?

Stockdale too was a revelation in the November series, while McFadden has been on fire for Leinster of late - much like Keith Earls for Munster.

Schmidt likes to pick on recent form and it is extremely difficult to argue with that, thereby making the case for the Munster combination of Earls and Andrew Conway almost impossible to ignore, although the head coach is certainly spoilt for choice down both wings.

On the basis of horses for courses, Rob Kearney would fill the full-back slot. Show me a confident team and I will point to a confident full-back as its catalyst.

Kearney is not perfect and he is coming towards the twilight of a great career but when it comes to delivering on the big stage he has seldom been found wanting.

However mystifying it might sound, he is a safer bet wearing No 15 in green than blue at this point in time.

James Ryan is another to have come on leaps and bounds - no surprise whatsoever there - but on the basis of the older dog for the hard road, the case for (non-runner) Donnacha Ryan or more pertinently a back-to-form Ultane Dillane is impossible to dismiss.

And like many I just didn't get the temporary exclusion of Sean Cronin. He is our best all-round hooker but Rory Best brings different qualities plus that belligerent brand of leadership to the captain's armband.

Cronin had lost a degree of fitness but is back in peak condition now.

There is a very strong case too for Farrell on the basis of midfield cover plus November form.

Who'd be a head coach?

Irish Independent

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