Sunday 19 November 2017

Tony Ward: We've never had it so good as Schmidt closes in on 'three for one' utopia

Munster's Conor Murray. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Munster's Conor Murray. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I was never great at maths in school but one thing I'm pretty sure about is that three into one won't go. Yet in Joe Schmidt's utopian world of coaching that is the Holy Grail.

Ireland's head coach has just named a preliminary squad of 40 for the Six Nations, and I guess if the likes of Jordi Murphy, Jared Payne, Mike Ross, Stuart Olding, Joey Carbery, Sean Cronin maybe Dave Kearney had been fit, a case could be made for 45 - and hey presto formula in place.

Oh that it were that simple.

Schmidt is no different from any coach at any level in any game in that he has a hard core he knows he can rely on. All things being equal, the tried and trusted will get the nod every time, and I support that stance to the full.

But back to that utopian ideal. On Planet Schmidt there would be three players for every position. Not just three props (and bear in mind there was a time not so long ago when we didn't even have that) but three looseheads and three tightheads of equal calibre and the same in every position from one to 15.

So in the search for the perfect jigsaw just where are we at this point in time?

Despite losing the Golden Generation to Old Father Time, we are in a better place now in terms of strength in depth than we have ever been.

Shadow

Starting at loosehead, Jack McGrath is unquestionably No 1 at this point in time with fellow Leinster man Cian Healy the shadow. Dave Kilcoyne has been on fire for Munster of late and has worked himself in as a more than solid third-choice in the position.

McGrath with 36 caps, Healy on 62 and Kilcoyne with 17 makes for a total of 115 Tests on Rory Best's left.

So for sure that box can be ticked before we even get to Denis Buckley, James Cronin or Andrew Porter.

On the right hand side it's better than ever - a long way from the days when Ireland could scarcely take the field if John Hayes or his successor Mike Ross were unavailable.

That said it is still early days and while Tadhg Furlong has been a revelation in the No 3 shirt he is still a rookie with 11 caps, while Finlay Bealham (3) and John Ryan (another immense talent) have just four between them. So while we're in a good place with Furlong, there is much still to be done in the search for cover comfort.

In between, and despite losing so many great players in the position over the years we are again well served at hooker.

We have yet another all time great in Rory Best a player who has grown into the role of captaincy since taking over from Paul O'Connell - when that leadership task seemed mission impossible.

And yet for all the potential shown by James Tracy and Niall Scannell - with Tracy now a definite alternative to the injured Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss at Leinster - the duo have just one Test appearance between them.

Injury to Best and yes we have an inexperience problem in the middle of the front row.

In the second-row, despite losing O'Connell we are well covered through Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan, Ultan Dillane and Billy Holland.

It would be a mighty tough call on the workaholic Ryan were he to be left out but Henderson is a class act who simply has to be included from the off.

Then there is the issue of impact, where Dillane comes into the equation. So at lock we tick both boxes.

The back row? Heaven help Schmidt make the right call on this one. Realistically it should be three from CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip.

Yet Jack Conan has to be in the frame inclusion in the match-day squad. And Dan Leavy, like Van der Flier, is a genuine openside in terms of mobility and groundhog work at the breakdown. Van der Flier has been a revelation for Leinster and indeed for Ireland in the Autumn internationals but where do you squeeze him in? And at the expense of whom?

I would have no problem whatsoever were he selected from the off but my gut (like Schmidt's) is with Stander, O'Brien (if fit) and Heaslip to start against the Scots.

But who then in reserve? O'Mahony, van der Flier or Conan (that is some shadow back-row)?

And that is without Leavy or the injured Murphy not to mention Rhys Ruddock, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy, Sean O'Brien (Connacht), Tommy O'Donnell or John Muldoon, a man playing out of his skin coming up to 35.

At scrum-half we have three, but Conor Murray stands alone, on form, experience and temperament. Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are well on the way but the gap between Murray and the rest is more Grand Canyon than Dunloe.

That will close but Murray's welfare is essential.

The importance of Johnny Sexton cannot be underplayed but Paddy Jackson has come on leaps and bounds.

In South Africa he came of age at the highest level and I would have no problem with the Ulster pivot stepping into Sexton's slot should that need arise.

Beyond that Ian Madigan's standby call should be a no-brainer. I won't labour the point any more.

In midfield, in the enforced absence of Payne it will be Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose at 12 and 13 respectively, with Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall and Rory Scannell vying for inclusion on the bench. McCloskey has been outstanding for a struggling Ulster side, and Scannell has been just as good for Munster respectively. Midfield looks healthy.

Options

In the back three Schmidt has given himself considerable options, with Andrew Conway the new kid on the block. Here too we are well covered, although the full-back is a big call given Rob Kearney's ongoing injury problems.

Tommy Bowe, who still has much to offer, and Craig Gilroy could be deemed somewhat fortunate to be included in the preliminary squad, when measured against the Leinster wings in particular of late.

Tiernan O'Halloran has been outstanding for Connacht as has Simon Zebo for Munster. I suspect it will be Kearney, Trimble and Zebo, but with Keith Earls back too we are well served.

So put all that together and it means we are in good nick in 12 of the fifteen positions.

That will improve again but for now the welfare of Best, Furlong and Murray is imperative.

Irish Independent

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