Sport Rugby

Thursday 22 March 2018

Tony Ward: Rotation policy not an option – Schmidt must play big guns

Samoan threat to force hand of new coach in series opener

Gordon D’Arcy should be the choice to team up with Brian O’Driscoll in the centre
Gordon D’Arcy should be the choice to team up with Brian O’Driscoll in the centre

Last weekend I outlined three selection options open to Joe Schmidt ahead of Saturday's opening November Test against Samoa.

Broadly speaking, they came under three categories – the full-on (pragmatic) selection, the shadow (romantic) XV or the combination (ideal) starting line-up capable of delivering the desired result.

The 'ideal' selection (perhaps 'compromise' is the more accurate term) went along the following lines: 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.

The rationale would see established leaders in every line, with a strong spine running from Rob Kearney through Brian O'Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Rory Best, Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip.

But the closer the Samoan challenge comes, the more edgy I'm getting. You can only imagine how the new Irish coach must be feeling.

Common sense – three hugely demanding physical Tests on successive weekends – suggests squad rotation, but this is not Pro12 or Heineken Cup.

It is easy for those of us hurling on the ditch to suggest a mix-and-match selection.

But putting myself in the new head coach's position, in my opening game in charge on my home patch against higher-ranked, dangerous opposition, I would go at it with the full monty and see where that leads ahead of the Wallabies next up.

Pre-professionalism, resources demanded we field our first-choice selection every time. Unlike England, France and New Zealand, we didn't have the strength in depth to tinker with selection from game to game.

For Ireland of the amateur era, the future was always in the here and now. Professionalism has widened the base and deepened the pool ever so slightly. Enough to warrant squad rotation? Unfortunately no.

Look at New Zealand, the rugby-mad nation that continually sets the standards: the All Blacks never take the field without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw when they're available.

Last Saturday in Tokyo, the New Zealand icons were at the heart of a 54-6 romp on the way to Europe. Schmidt does not need me to remind him about the ruthless consistency of the All Blacks approach.

So, on the basis of all being fit and well, and Sexton being absolved of his sins for transferring to France, we could expect an opening-Test selection along the following lines:

At full-back, Rob Kearney is a nailed-on pick – woe betide us if he ships an injury. His brother David, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls – who has been ruled out through injury – Ian Madigan and Robbie Henshaw can play there, but they don't on a regular basis at provincial level.


On the right, Schmidt can chose between Bowe and McFadden.

Ireland are a little short of natural balance down the left which a fit Simon Zebo or in-form Luke Fitzgerald might have provided.

McFadden is the most adaptive on either flank and Kearney the younger has been the most consistent in the left-sided slot thus far this season. I suspect the last line will read Rob Kearney, Bowe and McFadden wearing 15, 14 and 11 respectively.

In the centre, Schmidt needs little convincing as to the benefit of fielding old with new – O'Driscoll with Luke Marshall or Henshaw with Gordon D'Arcy – but for the Samoan job needs must as the most experienced midfield pairing in world rugby looks set to reunite once again.

The Sexton problem is real (statistics don't lie) and a sobering reminder of the attritional nature of the Top 14, and of the price to be paid for a contract in France.

That said, I don't quite share the concern expressed about our top No 10 being flat given the nature of his position. Were the call mine he would be back at No 10 on Saturday.

Alongside Sexton, either Eoin Reddan or Isaac Boss (in that order) would slot in seamlessly, but as a pairing the Racing Metro man and Conor Murray lead the way.

Up front, Schmidt should go with all guns blazing. That means seven of the eight picking themselves.

Cian Healy, Best and Mike Ross will make up the front-row, with Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Heaslip the breakaway unit – despite the outstanding form of Chris Henry for Ulster,.

John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Willie Duggan was probably our best and certainly most balanced back-row unit ever, but this combination is right up there despite the reservations expressed by some regarding the Tullow Tank as an out-and-out rampaging No 7.

But O'Brien wearing six, seven or eight will do for me as he is that good. Just imagine were Stephen Ferris still in that mix. Hope springs eternal on that count for later in the season.

That leaves the second-row. Locks have become athletic, mobile thoroughbreds and given the absence of Donnacha Ryan, Dan Tuohy and O'Connell fit the bill admirably.

As for captain? Should it be continuity (Heaslip) or the best man (O'Connell), who is at last in the right place at the right time to officially fulfil that role?

A measured selection could do the business but from Schmidt's perspective, it is not a risk worth taking.

Dardis can follow Watson's lead to grace big stage

IT might have escaped attention on this little island, but the decision of Stuart Lancaster to call Bath's former London Irish youngster Anthony Watson into the senior England squad for Saturday's Test against Argentina is worth a mention.

I saw the talented Watson play at full-back for St George's College throughout his days at the Weybridge school and it can't be denied that the 19-year-old flier is a hugely exciting prospect.

Watson will be exposed to the England training methods at Pennyhill Park in much the same way as Wasps lock Joe Launchbury was before him.

Despite the vast reservoir of talent available to the England head coach, Lancaster is going with his instinct on this one.

Given that Joe Schmidt's son Tim has lined out on the same Terenure and Leinster Schools teams as the extremely talented Irish underage full-back Billy Dardis, it's not unreasonable to suggest the same route be left open to the Kildare youngster in this country as Watson has taken across the water.

Schmidt knows Dardis' capabilities well and, as it happens, there is a precedent in the same position and same age bracket from the Warren Gatland days back in '98. The name? D'Arcy ... Gordon D'Arcy.

Irish Independent

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