Sport Rugby

Friday 20 September 2019

Tony Ward: Schmidt's rich reserves underline World Cup credentials

Sean O'Brien is just one of a number of top-notch players who did not start against Australia
Sean O'Brien is just one of a number of top-notch players who did not start against Australia
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So where to from here? With the English and French coming to Dublin, Ireland must be Six Nations favourites. With our best draw ever in the World Cup, we're definitely dark horses for the Webb Ellis Cup.

So no pressure then Joe Schmidt as the most pragmatic coach in our history resets his goals for 2015.

Ten wins from 13 games, including Six Nations crown, November clean sweep - no matter how much anyone tries to play it down, the last 12-plus months have been exceptional since Schmidt took control.

I wish him well in his recovery from his appendicitis operation by way of a massive go raibh mile maith agat. For what the amiable and extremely grounded Kiwi has brought to the Irish cause is a squad moulded in his image.

We're not quite fully there - and that is what is so exciting - but we're well on the way.

Just after Schmidt had arrived from Clermont to take the Leinster reins from Michael Cheika, I was talking to Brian O'Driscoll's father Frank. One comment he made really registered and has stayed since. I asked how Brian was finding the new main man.

"Fascinating," was Frank's response. "He challenges the lads in training by way of variation in conditioned areas but with the emphasis very much on precision in doing the simple things well."

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Schmidt has never strayed from that principle as he has moved up through the ranks. Yes, he places great emphasis on inclusivity, but ask any player involved with Leinster or Ireland and they will talk of that attention to detail through repetitive practice.

However cliched it might sound, the fact is that if you look after the detail, the bigger picture looks after itself.

Schmidt is blessed too with his captain: Paul O'Connell mirrors his head coach when he speaks. That is not a criticism - quite the opposite, because what you get from the Irish camp is a grounded humility throughout the squad and backroom staff.

Rest assured, there will be no member of this Irish group predicting anything beyond facing Italy in the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday, February 7 next up - and there is no greater banana skin than a fixture we lost 22-15 last time.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect to this successful Guinness series was the development of the squad depth.

Let's for a minute assume bad luck strikes like never before and all 15 of Saturday's starting line-up are ruled out for the journey to Rome. Where to then?

At full-back the options are threefold, probably in this order: Felix Jones, Jared Payne (although he has been picked by Schmidt as a No 13) and Darragh Leader. It's not too long ago when with Rob Kearney ruled out it was panic stations leaving Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls uncomfortably filling the No 15 shirt.

On the wings you would have last year's dual revelation with Ireland Player of the Year Andrew Trimble on the right and Dave Kearney down the left. That still leaves Earls, Fitzgerald, Craig Gilroy, Fergus McFadden and the fast improving Darragh Fanning out of the mix.

In the centre take two from Payne, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding and Noel Reid. Bear in mind too that Earls, Fitzgerald and Trimble were primarily centres in their development through underage rugby.

At half back Eoin Reddan is still the most complete alternative to Conor Murray but Kieran Marmion, Isaac Boss and Luke McGrath (another real deal in the making), Paul Marshall too offer skill sets over and above the ordinary.

Ian Madigan is surely the nailed-on cover to Johnny Sexton, leaving Ian Keatley and Paddy Jackson in that order.

At loosehead (and he'll have his work cut out in getting his shirt back from Jack McGrath) is Cian Healy, with Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin the back-ups.

Tighthead is a little more tricky but probably with Rodney Ah You, Marty Moore, Stephen Archer and Nathan White in that order. A very long way from Marcus Horan and John Hayes. . . period!

In between it's Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss, Damien Varley and Mike Sherry, possibly Rob Herring too.

In the second-row take your choice between Dave Foley, Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy, Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan.

As for the back-row conundrum, pick any three from Kevin McLaughlin, Dominic Ryan, Tommy O'Donnell, Robbie Diack, Jordi Murphy and Sean O'Brien.

Until the medical picture is clearer on Chris Henry, I'll leave the stout-hearted Ulster flanker out of the hypothetical equation.

Beyond that, there are so many up and coming young players emerging from the system. In particular, watch out for Jack Conan and the Byrne brothers - Brian and Ed - at Leinster.

Aviva Stadium atmosphere finally comes of age

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh - the All Black game last year being a case in point - but it has taken until now for the Aviva Stadium to come of age and  foster the atmosphere of days gone by.

The crowd certainly didn't beat the Springboks or Wallabies but they sure helped as players and spectators finally came together as one.

It was the thought uppermost in my mind as I watched the players show their appreciation of the fans when applauding all four sides of the ground afterwards.

One thing I used hate, and it probably applied most in the sad, bad '90s, was players gesticulating towards spectators in search of support. That process should only work the other way. By their deeds players elicit crowd support and no other way.

Against South Africa a fortnight ago and again in the face of that final Australian onslaught on Saturday players and spectators were united.

The coming of age is complete, four years after rugby returned to Lansdowne Road.

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