Wednesday 13 December 2017

Uncompromising Schmidt refuses to play to gallery

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"Arduous" was the word Joe Schmidt used to describe the upcoming three-Test tour of South Africa as he selected the 32 men charged with making history.

Ireland have never beaten the Springboks on home soil never mind win a series, so the coach appears to be on the money with his assessment.

Along with New Zealand, the country is spoken about as the most difficult venue to tour, but the schedule includes just one match at altitude and, for all that there were some big names on the list of absentees that accompanied the squad announcement, Schmidt will be able to field a strong team for the first Test at Newlands in 16 days' time.

He will learn more about what faces his side when South Africa name their squad this weekend, while the players will gather in camp next week where they will begin to work with new defence coach Andy Farrell.

We will have to wait until Monday for the head coach to justify a handful of controversial selection calls when he speaks publicly for the first time since the Six Nations alongside the former England assistant who will look to sharpen Ireland's line-speed over the next four weeks.

While the bulk of the squad was along expected lines, a number of Schmidt's decisions that have been greeted with the usual levels of online outrage as Kiwi coach dropped Tommy O'Donnell and overlooked Matt Healy and Craig Gilroy.


He also axed Ian Madigan who is now learning the full cost of leaving the system, while Stuart McCloskey's end-of-season dip in form has cost him his place.

The decision to call up Quinn Roux is a mysterious one given he can't get into the Connacht match-day squad at the moment, while fellow newcomer Sean Reidy is rewarded for an end-of-season burst that sees him beat clubmate Chris Henry and O'Donnell to the punch along with Jordi Murphy who has earned a recall.

Roux arrived with a big reputation from South Africa, but has struggled to make anywhere near as much of an impact as CJ Stander who signed for Munster at the same time his compatriot came to Leinster.

Yet, those within the game over there felt the 125kg second-row was the greater loss to the system and, having initially signed him back in 2012, Schmidt clearly still believes he can get the best out of a rare physical specimen.

The inclusion of Roux and 27-year-old, New Zealand-born Reidy, whose grandfather came from Castlegregory, Co Kerry, means that six of the 32 tourists came from outside the Irish system, with three South Africans, two Kiwis and Australian Finlay Bealham all on board.

If both newcomers get capped in South Africa, it will mean that 42pc of the players handed their debuts by Schmidt will have qualified to play for Ireland on residency grounds or through their parentage.

It is bound to be a major topic of conversation when the squad land in Cape Town on Monday week, with Stander and Richardt Strauss almost certain to feature in the first Test against the country of their birth.

Yet, for all the debate around Schmidt's decision to select Dave Kearney ahead of Healy and Gilroy and the other absentees, the coach will still be able to select a formidable side.

In the back three, Rob Kearney makes the cut despite an injury-hit season.

In the carefully worded press release that accompanied the squad, Schmidt said he had "attempted to prioritise players who are currently as close to full fitness as possible" when picking.

So, he must have confidence that his full-back has overcome the back and hamstring injuries that have plagued him since the World Cup and disrupted so much of his season. Lately, the Louth man has been struggling with an ankle problem, but he is set to return against Connacht this Saturday.

Simon Zebo's absence through injuries raises the prospect of Jared Payne covering the full-back position after excelling there for Ulster, while there is a real battle for the wing positions as Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney vie for attention.

They are all trusted members of Schmidt's squad and it was always going to be difficult for Healy and Gilroy to supplant them.

Gilroy's chances won't have been helped by his defensive display against Leinster on Friday, while for all Healy's try-scoring exploits for Connacht he still has work to do to convince Schmidt of his merits. Tiernan O'Halloran is another who can't be far away.

The decision to axe McCloskey backs up the theory that the coach has never been truly convinced by the big Bangor man who started at Twickenham, whereas Luke Marshall was 24th man in every one of the Six Nations games and surely deserves some involvement on the tour after his inclusion.


The coach is definitely a fan of Stuart Olding who has largely been used as a bench option by Ulster coach Less Kiss. The 23-year-old has bulked up since his last cap in November 2014 and the added power, combined with his sublime feet, delicate hands and ability to play across the backline make him a live contender for impact off the bench.

That versatility lessens the impact of Madigan's omission which shows that, for all that there is no official policy in place, it's not a good move to move abroad if you want to play for Ireland.

In the absence of Cian Healy and Nathan White, there are recalls for Dave Kilcoyne and Tadhg Furlong in the front-row, while Iain Henderson is back to offer ball-carrying ability from the second-row or the No 6 jersey.

Roux and Reidy are surprise inclusions, with O'Donnell's head must be fried after being left out again by Schmidt.

The Munster flanker started Ireland first Six Nations game against Wales, came off the bench against France and was dropped from the match-day 23 or games three and four before being restored against Italy.

Now, with Sean O'Brien and Josh van der Flier injured, he is left out for the summer tour.

Such is the way of Joe Schmidt. He doesn't play to the gallery, but if his Ireland team win in South Africa then nobody will be complaining.

Possible Ireland team for first Test (v South Africa): R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), M Ross; D Toner, I Henderson; CJ Stander, R Ruddock, J Heaslip. Reps: R Strauss, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, U Dillane, J Murphy, E Reddan, P Jackson, K Earls.

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