Saturday 20 January 2018

Tony Ward: Fortune deserves to favour brave Schmidt

Personnel changes show courage to take measured risk

Ireland's Devin Toner
Ireland's Devin Toner
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Despite the November internationals taking centre stage, most media attention has focused firmly on the FAI's appointment of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane as Ireland manager and assistant respectively.

Given the backdrop, the wall-to-wall coverage is understandable. Whatever else, football life for the immediate future won't be dull under the dynamic duo.

In appointing Joe Schmidt as Ireland head coach, Philip Browne and the IRFU were appointing the best man for the top position.

Unlike the FAI, where there were other options, the IRFU's selection was obvious. Schmidt was so far ahead as the mentor in waiting that the race to succeed Declan Kidney was over before it began. What you see with Schmidt is what you get.

SAFE

He is a safe pair of hands and, much more than that, is a coach for whom the words dull, predictable or conservative just don't apply, based on his two team selections to date.

It's one thing to say how well guys are doing in training, it's quite another thing backing that up by way of selection when the time comes to declare your hand.

So if six changes in personnel, plus one positional switch, on the back of your team posting a massive winning margin in your first game in charge doesn't indicate a much changed working environment, then I don't know what does.

Three of those changes – Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien for Paddy Jackson, Jack McGrath and Chris Henry – were predictable but I defy anyone to name a previous Ireland coach who would have opted for Luke Marshall, Eoin Reddan and Devin Toner instead of the experienced Gordon D'Arcy, Conor Murray and Mike McCarthy.

All three cases are worth closer examination. D'Arcy put in a productive second half against the Samoans but his first-half performance left a lot to be desired. He knows that better than any. Marshall has been doing particularly well for Ulster and is now a fixture in the side.

He has reproduced that consistency in camp, and Schmidt will reward the Ulsterman by playing him beside Brian O'Driscoll to glean experience from the master, before the sands of time run out.

It is a risk – every selection is – but a measured one. I didn't expect it but am hugely encouraged by it. At scrum-half Murray has been immense for Munster and when called into action for the Lions on the summer tour to Australia.

He is bigger and more powerful than his fellow Limerick man Reddan but what the Leinster and former Wasps No 9 brings is that higher tempo, snappier service and all-round zip to his game. His box-kicking has improved no end too.

Here again I expected Murray to partner Sexton but Schmidt sees the bigger picture and in his mind the type of game to which he aspires makes Reddan a key component in its evolution.

The third 'surprise' selection really did catch me out, not because the much improved Toner doesn't deserve it but because we as a rugby nation have traditionally gone with a workhorse at No 4, leaving the more thoroughbred lock to wear No 5.

Toner, all 6ft 10ins of him, is an athletic forward in the Paul O'Connell/ Malcolm O'Kelly/ Neil Francis mould.

Providing the scrum functions and Toner packs down comfortably alongside O'Connell then the advantage out of touch is obvious.

It is a long time since we have fielded such ball-winning potential at the line-out. And that should lead to the eradication of two personal bugbears of the modern game – the failure to find the sanctity of touch when it is prudent to do so and competing on the opposition throw instead of surrendering free ball.

Nine of the starting 15 and 14 of the match-day squad play at Leinster. Even if we lose today I like what I am seeing. I would suggest a more enlightened approach to selection is unfolding.

It is one based on current form ahead of hitting camp at Carton House and then backed up by performance on the training pitch making for a much more competitive and, crucially, incentive-driven build-up.

Every squad is only as strong as its weakest link and if that weakest link believes he is only there to make up the numbers then he will train and play accordingly.

The bottom line, and how this management will ultimately be judged, comes on the playing field on match day.

MASSIVE

Today's head to head is massive – sixth versus fourth in the IRB world rankings. Under Ewen McKenzie, another head coach who believes in what he sees and backs instinct with decision making, Australia are a squad on the up.

McKenzie may have spent his playing career in the scrum but his attacking philosophy is enlightening.

He is playing to his strengths and in every back named today, from Will Genia to the irrepressible Israel Folau (if you haven't yet seen him run you're in for a treat), they are loaded with playmakers, ball carriers and finishers.

The scrum and line-out can be attacked but in Michael Hooper they possess the real scavenging deal thereby putting it up to O'Driscoll and Marshall in terms of competing at the breakdown.

O'Brien is not a Hooper or a David Pocock, nor is he selected as such. Depending on the platform, we could have the upper hand in terms of forward momentum via scrum, ruck and maul but loose and careless kicking will be punished more ruthlessly than last week. It has the makings of a cracker.

Can Ireland win? Yes. Will they? Well, if fortune does favour the bold then Schmidt has laid down the groundwork.

To win we're going to have to dig deep but we can and even if the heart is to some degree ruling the head, I suspect we will.

Ireland by six (18-12).

Irish Independent

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