Stakes high in risky business
In the week after Ireland's 24-22 loss to New Zealand, Joe Schmidt was asked about what his team might be able to salvage from the wreckage and remodel for the future. The World Cup was mentioned for example, and how far he thought things might have taken shape by then. He opened his answer by saying that he was envious of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, not because of the rich human resources at his disposal, rather the number of games Hansen would have in order to get New Zealand to the right level for 2015 in England.
In World Cup year, 2015, the chances are New Zealand will arrive to the show well below the figure Ireland will set, which will probably be nine Tests (five games in the Six Nations, followed by four in the warm-up series for RWC). In 2014 however, they are scheduled to play 14 matches, as they did last year -- four more than Ireland will manage in the same calendar year, and eight over the years 2013 and 2014. Eight Tests is a fair amount of game time if you're looking to find out who can do what.
Schmidt contends that it was the endgame in Lansdowne Road in November where we saw the effect of that exposure to rugby at the top level. When the kitchen over-heated in that last minute and a half, the home team reluctantly had to leave. The Kiwis, a few degrees cooler, stayed where they were.
"I think a degree of what happened was naivete," says Scmidt. "We had guys who were less experienced on the field. When they can throw on a bench of Liam Messam, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett -- he's amassed a fair few Tests now, Barrett, and has had a massive impact. Now that's nothing against the guys who came off the bench for us. I think they worked really hard. But stacking up their experience and their opportunities to get off the bench -- there is a real difference."
Ireland used 29 players over the November series, not all of them up to Test level. Stephen Archer for example came on for Mike Ross against the Wallabies and was immediately in desperate trouble; Robbie Henshaw got a run off the bench in the same game and found himself caught out defensively -- he clocked off for a millisecond and his man got away from him -- in the concession of what was a killer score in the first half.
Of the remaining 27 players, grave doubts remain about Declan Fitzpatrick's ability to start, finish or impact on Test rugby. When he plays and gets though some work without incident it tends to be greeted with great relief, which is not what you're looking for in this business.
So of the three tightheads used in the series, only Ross -- 34 on December 21 last and showing increasing signs of wear and tear -- is in the right bracket. Marty Moore, his understudy at Leinster, is steaming towards a first cap, and is likely to leapfrog Archer in the way that his loosehead colleague at Leinster, Jack McGrath, has overtaken Dave Kilcoyne.
Two challenges face Schmidt: the first is to decide to what degree the Six Nations can be used as a breeding ground; and the second is what faces he thinks will fit in the frame.
This has not been the way with Schmidt's predecessors. Because the Championship has been regarded as the jewel in the crown of European rugby, previous coaches have looked no further than winning the next game. And it's been hard to argue with that. Why would you mess around with something that drives the financial engine of your game, and comes around every year, on the basis of finding out more about players who may or may not feature in a tournament that comes around only once in every four years, and costs you money?
"We've got to maximise whatever time we can get," Schmidt said, of the need to blood players. "I know that some people might have been frustrated with some of the selection risks that were taken (in the November series), because a Test match is a final, but you have to learn about players and sometimes, especially if they're not getting opportunities in provincial games, it's incumbent upon us to give them that opportunity. Sometimes through injury or lack of form or competition in the province, they haven't had that opportunity."
It doesn't sound like he will be waiting until the two Test tour of Argentina next summer until be makes another selection which supporters would class as a risk. His escape hatch is that the Championship is so compressed, and rugby has become so brutally physical, that you have to make changes to survive.
The tricky bit is selling them when the players have not been beating the door down to get in purely on merit. This is especially true of prop forwards whose game time at provincial level has been stunted by overseas players blocking their path. Hence Schmidt's line about it "being incumbent upon us" to open the door for them. It's a woeful way to be picking a Test side. In a small country like ours however, that is the landscape.
The scene will change between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, when a decent number of Irish tightheads will be propping the provincial scrums around the country. Marty Moore and Tadhg Furlong in Leinster, Ricky Lutton, Adam Macklin and Chris Taylor in Ulster, Rodney Ah You -- still only 24, and learning -- and a Georgian kid Saba Meunigara in Connacht; Stephen Archer, hopefully, along with John Ryan and Rory Burke in Munster.
Schmidt's problem is what's hurtling down the track however. No matter what he does this season he will be sweating over his tighthead, far more for example than replacing Brian O'Driscoll. Gatty's pal will hardly have concluded his lap of honour but Jared Payne will be practising Ireland's Call.
If Payne was ready to roll in February then we'd be seeing him in action by the time we get to round three of the Six Nations, against England at the end of that month. Indeed it will be interesting to see how many players the new coach has used by then. And whether or not they are in the risk category.