Saturday 24 February 2018

The Schmidt conundrum

Ireland head coach must show innovation and take risk – but it will be impossible to play his 'strongest team' in all three internationals

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There's no show like a Joe show and that will be the earnest desire of rugby aficionados and the wider sporting community as Joe Schmidt faces a baptism of fire with a testing series of games over the next three weekends.

Short of throwing in South Africa to complete the 'Big Three', this is as tough a November schedule as you can get.

The new Ireland coach shares Mullingar roots with the entertainment legend that was the great Joe Dolan, having coached at Cullion and Wilson's Hospital School in Westmeath when he first hit these shores back in the early '90s.

For the affable Kiwi it is a huge change in rugby conditions. Making the move from the daily working environment to the much more sporadic national set-up is fraught with danger and frustration.

ACCURACY

That is a major shift, particularly for one so meticulous in terms of passing accuracy, drill perfection and essential repetition.

He is acutely aware of the goodwill that exists towards him out there, but equally has he been here long enough now to appreciate how fickle new-age rugby support can be.

The days when a 60-minute gutsy showing from Ireland ending in narrow defeat – moral victory, we called it – have long passed us by.

Schmidt, Les Kiss and new forwards coach John Plumtree need time, but time doesn't come as part of the package in Test rugby.

So given the uncompromising schedule that lies ahead, let us put ourselves in the new man's shoes.

First up it's Samoa – a team on a mission, with Ireland the only tier-one opposition on this all-too-infrequent European tour for the Pacific island nation. For coach Stephen Betham it's a case of all hands on deck, and a full-strength XV will be gunning for Ireland at the Aviva Stadium next weekend.

Contrast that with the dilemma confronting Schmidt in his first Test as coach. Essentially, the main man has three questions to ask himself:

1 Do I field my strongest available team in every game?

2 Do I field my shadow XV in the opening Test and build from there?

3. Or do I strike a middle line and mix and match what I believe to be a balanced line-up capable of giving the new set-up a winning start?

It is a complicated conundrum, amplified by the quality of opposition in the opening game.

Were he to go for his best starting XV based on form and experience, albeit under a different regime, I suspect that as many as 13, perhaps 14, of his first-up XV would pick themselves.

Probably left wing and one second-row berth are areas warranting an element of midnight oil. Were Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo fit and available, the strongest line-up, even under a new coach, would surely give Schmidt few headaches.

Keith Earls – although out of his comfort zone on the left – and Dan Tuohy – on fire for Ulster – would be the main contenders to wear No 11 and No 4 respectively based on form in my book.

That would make for a first up XV along the following lines:

R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best , M Ross; D Tuohy, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Were the risk-laden decision taken to delve into the extended squad and field a shadow XV it might materialise, with Ian Madigan filling in at full-back, as follows:

I Madigan; F McFadden, R Henshaw, L Marshall, D Kearney; P Jackson, E Reddan; T Court, S Cronin, D Fitzpatrick; M McCarthy, D Toner; K McLaughlin, C Henry, J Coughlan.

FLOGGING

But, given the quality of opposition, that is a luxury Schmidt does not enjoy so, short of flogging his first-choice selection three weekends running, never mind the almost guaranteed injury that would involve, it is imperative he shows some innovation, and yes risk, beyond the tried and trusted.

I will deal with the likely selection in more minute detail in the coming days plus the captaincy but, on the basis of hard-core experience sprinkled throughout every line, the following mix might just meet the Samoan demand:

R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, L Marshall, K Earls; J Sexton, E Reddan; T Court, R Best, M Ross; M McCarthy, P O'Connell; K McLaughlin, C Henry, J Heaslip.

As the clock ticks down ahead of the opening 'Joe Show', the air of anticipation surrounding his maiden Ireland selection will grow.

He is between a rock and hard place but, as his record to date shows, if anyone can find the most effective way out, it is the man from Manawatu.

Whatever happens, an exciting few weeks lie ahead.

Irish Independent

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