Sunday 17 December 2017

Tony Ward: Some of Joe Schmidt's decisions confusing

Joe Schmidt knows that Argentina will provide a real test for his Ireland side. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Joe Schmidt knows that Argentina will provide a real test for his Ireland side. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Of course it has so much to do with the time of year, but, given the lack of Irish Heineken Cup final involvement – apart from referee Alain Rolland and Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall – it has been a week of player and management announcements.

First up, it was Joe Schmidt and the Ireland squad to take on Argentina in what will be a very demanding two-test tour. The Pumas may not be the power they once were, but given the unfamiliar match venues – Chaco and Tucuman – I think a hostile atmosphere awaits the current Six Nations champions.

The rationale behind most of Schmidt's original selections I understand, but one or two are confusing. The most obvious has already been dealt in that injury (shipped against Leinster) has deprived Paddy Jackson of a place on the plane.

Reading between the lines of the head coach's explanation, it would appear he was saying that Ian Madigan would most probably get at least two games with the shadow side (assuming Ian Keatley was earmarked to get the other), whereas the Puma demands are likely to see Johnny Sexton wear the No 10 shirt in both test matches – so much for the nonsensical theory that our playmaker-in-chief is being overextended in France.

EXCLUDED

On the basis of the final selection for Paris, whereby Jackson was unexpectedly excluded from the matchday squad and Madigan picked in his place, the thought process is somewhat difficult to track. Jackson has been playing well for Ulster in that linking role, whereas Madigan is still struggling for game time in the pivotal position at Leinster.

You can take it as read that once they are both declared fit, it will be Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll who will form the centre pairing against Glasgow Warriors in the Pro12 final, but if Matt O'Connor is not at least considering Madigan for a starting slot, then the 'only as good as your last game' mantra is shot through.

Madigan has that X-Factor, that instant impact that marks him out as being special. I fully understand O'Connor's stance on Jimmy Gopperth, whose all-round game fits comfortably into the team's current modus operandi. The boldest decision would be to play both from the start in the Pro12 final, but don't hold your breath.

However, Schmidt was wrong to leave Madigan out of the original squad. Whether it was one from Jackson, Darren Cave or Luke Marshall to make way, Madigan's case for inclusion has been proven many times over. I would also add Craig Gilroy in this respect. The current full-back experiment excites me and draws favourable comparison with Leigh Halfpenny at a similar stage in his development. Felix Jones has been chosen as cover for Rob Kearney. However, on recent form – comparing Gilroy with Jones – the Ulster man should be heading to Buenos Aires.

As regular readers know, I find watching Jones operate at full-back for Munster hugely frustrating. But there is potentially a very real positive in his selection. For the next few weeks, he has, in Schmidt, a supreme technician, who can help iron out the flaws in his game as an out and out full-back and get him back to the way he was before he became an extra red-shirted forward at the breakdown.

It looks great in terms of energy and physical involvement, but serves no constructive purpose.

Jones expends so much of this energy in the wrong areas of the field. His own game is suffering and, by extension, his team's, but no one in Munster has even attempted to address the obvious. I sincerely hope by way of this selection (which is not form based), that Schmidt will do just that.

Beyond that, it is encouraging to see form and potential recognised in the selection of James Cronin, Robbie Diack, Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy, Rob Herring, Rhys Ruddock, Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion.

I am still uncomfortable with the three-year residential rule (at least five would be closer the mark), but given that they are the rules, Schmidt and the IRFU are playing it by the book. Thus, Herring, Diack and Marmion have got the call – with Jared Payne set to come on board, too, come the autumn.

However, on balance, a squad of 30 with over half on 10 caps or less smacks of sensible planning, given the extent of the challenge.

It sure won't be easy and we may end up sharing the series, but the bottom-line objective is strengthening the pickable squad as England 2015 comes firmly into view.

 

Focus will be on Walsh and Costello as they bid to reinvent Reds back play

Allowing for the fact that four of the top five coaching positions in Irish rugby are still in the hands of assured Antipodeans, it's been an encouraging week for indigenous coaches.

With Leinster making the official announcement that Leo Cullen would take up the reins from Jono Gibbes as assistant coach with responsibility for the forwards to Matt O'Connor, Richie Murphy extended his contract as both kicking and skills coach.

Two popular appointments made from within.

At the same time in Munster, the new broom in the form of Anthony Foley was, with the backing of Garrett Fitzgerald and the Professional Game Board, sweeping the coaching floor clean.

Whether or not it's a new dawn only time will tell, but certainly, in terms of new faces in key positions, it will make for interesting and exciting times ahead.

The CEO was at pains to point out that it was not just a team of indigenous coaches who have learned their trade within the province, but also, in the view of the board, the best available in a limited market at this point in time.

Apart from the newly appointed head coach, the reconstructed bootroom comprises Mick O'Driscoll (assistant forwards coach), Jerry Flannery (scrum coach), Brian Walsh (backs coach) and Ian Costello (defence and skills coach).

I wish Eddie O'Sullivan had also been part of that coaching ticket, but he is not, so we are where we are.

For many reasons I want this group to succeed. It is good for Irish rugby that a path has been found for former players (whether club or province) to get a foothold on the coaching ladder.

The spotlight will be most particularly on Walsh and Costello, given their brief to carry out root and branch surgery and effectively reinvent Munster back play. It cannot get any worse than the mess it is already in. But the raw material is there, if it is properly organised, prudently structured and allowed to play the game as it develops and not according to any pre-determined plan.

Mind you, with hand on heart, I cannot identify any structure to Munster back play in recent times other than one out to the next red shirt. I don't know how former Cork Con and Munster three- quarter Walsh will adapt to the step-up, but based on what we have witnessed in his significant winning apprenticeship at Temple Hill, the potential to play a cuter, more pragmatically tailored attacking game is certainly there.

I would like to think too that the new Munster management will not be slow in enlisting outside help where prudent. To that end there should be an open line between the National Coach and Walsh and Costello in particular.

It is in the best interest of Irish rugby to take Munster back play to another level. Precision and accuracy, allied to patience and clever decision making, saw Joe Schmidt grab Leinster and European rugby by storm. It wasn't rocket science, but it was attention to detail which accounted for much that followed – even given the fact that he did inherit some pretty handy players.

No one is expecting immediate miracles from Munster behind the scrum, but what the players and coaches must demand of themselves and of each other is a more unified sense of attacking purpose and an individual willingness to give it a go and play off each other and NOT off the blackboard.

Like most genuine Munster supporters, I am excited at the prospect of this new back-room team taking Munster back play in a new direction.

The collective appointment is a high risk strategy, but deserves time and space to do its thing. We wish Anthony, Jerry, Micko, Brian and Ian nothing but the best in their endeavours.

The only way is up.

Irish Independent

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