Wednesday 21 February 2018

Tony Ward: Schmidt takes wise option to mix and match but old order is rapidly changing

Stuart McCloskey and Tommy Bowe
Stuart McCloskey and Tommy Bowe
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Seventeen from Leinster, seven from Ulster and Munster, four from Connacht and four uncapped. The provincial divvy-out doesn't matter a whit but for those sad cases who still insist on wearing blue or red to Ireland games, we'll state the obvious anyway.

Of much more relevance is the four uncapped. Is it representative of the changing order in recent months specifically since the disappointing end to a World Cup that had promised so much up to that quarter-final reality check in Cardiff?

Let's try and create some balance here. Would I like to have seen a few more new kids on the extended panel block? Yes of course I would, and I know I am not alone in that regard.

Yet I fully get what the head coach is at. Change for the sake of change is never the solution, short-term or long. Change based on form and potential in the appropriate environment is the right way to go.

No more than anybody bar those closest to him in matters of selection do I have an insider route to Joe Schmidt's 'beautiful mind' but scratch a little bit below the surface of this selection and I think it easier to read.

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Of course there are other factors too, specifically the onus the IRFU, through David Nucifora and the relevant committee, place on their main man to deliver a Six Nations performance appropriate to the investment. In other words a third Six Nations title on the bounce. No pressure then Joe.

I like almost everybody else out there want Ireland to perform and with it a repeat of 2009 by way of Triple Crown, Grand Slam and Championship. Do I want that at all costs? No I don't.

Iain Henderson.png
Ireland lock Iain Henderson

There is the unavailability of Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony and Dan Tuohy, with at least two of that quartet guaranteed starters if fully fit.

Add to that Paul O'Connell's retirement plus shorter-term injuries to Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Chris Henry (although there has to be increasing concern about injury for Healy and age for Ross).

Put all that together and there had to be change but limited change and this is where I fully comprehend what this preliminary selection is about.

There are three uncapped players in forwards Ultan Dillane (who I am reliably informed when he got the news while walking home on Thursday night sang and danced on the footpath with delight!), CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier.

The latter two have been consistently outstanding for their provinces in Pro 12 and Champions Cup, albeit in performing very different back-row tasks.

To that add Stuart McCloskey, who I still maintain based on all constructive (and dare we say destructive) evidence has to be in the frame for selection to face the Welsh.

Jared Payne (SPORTSFILE)

If Schmidt is honourable to that gut instinct of his then McCloskey will have to be in the mix for first-up selection, particularly when factoring in the lack of game-time for his favoured two - Jared Payne (above) and Robbie Henshaw.

To that add Luke Marshall, who has been equally outstanding in a powerful midfield combination for Ulster. We are not forgetting Darren Cave and Stuart Olding (another long-term injury) - suffice it to say Les Kiss is spoilt for choice in his new role at Ulster.

As Simon Zebo is justifiably on board I suspect he will cover full-back too but were the call mine I would be pushing Payne to challenge Rob Kearney in what is undoubtedly the adopted Kiwi's most effective attacking position.

Beyond that the selection of Kieran Marmion in his own right is to be welcomed.

Would I have liked to have seen Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose and Matt Healy included in this extended squad? Absolutely. But right now we are on a sticky wicket insofar as the Welsh opener is must-win given it is the French and English on the road next up.

Expect a lot of tension in camp over the next fortnight. Not necessarily the best working environment for rookie introduction.

Against that ask me to name the three best players thus far this season wearing 11, 12 and 13 and my instant retort is Healy, McCloskey and Ringrose. To that, in shirt No 14, add Andrew Trimble too.

Ireland’s opening try of the World Cup against Scotland on Super Saturday was a real team try, finished by Paul O’Connell. Picture: Getty Images

Up front it's all about combinations as the quantity and quality of up-and-coming forwards greatly excites, allowing for a degree of concern in the second-row. Replacing Paul O'Connell (above) is not about replacing the irreplaceable, as some over-the-top comment might suggest, but it's not going to be easy and will take time.

It looks at this distance like a straight choice between Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan to partner Devin Toner although there is the option of a temporary fix in moving Stander or Rhys Ruddock one row up.

Again based on form and consistency over the season to date Stander has been the stand-out back-row forward ahead of Van der Flier.

Schmidt bases his selection on all 23 and I go along with that. The most pertinent question relates to who can make the greatest impact in a mid-match crisis. Stander for sure has that capability, with Ruddock much more effective in a starting role.

In that key respect the game has moved on somewhat from picking your perceived best 15 to start.

I would have no problem whatsoever with Stander at six, Sean O'Brien seven and Jamie Heaslip at eight but I do appreciate the case for Ruddock on the blindside and our newly adopted Springbok from the hour-mark when needed.

Just as options are increasing in the centre so too in the front-row where James Cronin, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Tadhg Furlong and Nathan White provide cover to the injured and somewhat out of sorts long-established duo of Healy and Ross.

Sean Cronin - determined to make an impact

At hooker, Rory Best - a really sensible call as captain in the short term - Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin (above) provide extraordinary assurance.

I still don't know what Cronin did to warrant dropping from three to two in the World Cup pecking order as he is still the most dynamic running forward available to Schmidt bar none, making him an obvious selection for the bench.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Best will prove a superb choice as captain. When you see a quote attributed to the new skipper along the lines "I know how unbelievably lucky I am to take over from Paulie" you wonder if somewhere in the back of his mind the sub text reads "what have I let myself in for?".

But the nature of this beast is Paulie-esque. He is a scrapper and a fighter in the O'Connell/Ciaran Fitzgerald mould.

When a player of the quality of Mike Sherry fails to make the cut then you know you are pretty well covered and that for sure is the case at hooker in what could be best described a measured squad.

Irish Independent

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