Monday 22 July 2019

Joe Schmidt keeps punters guessing on World Cup gamble

Coach may risk injured props but not fill-in scrumhalf, says Brendan Fanning

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You may have come across the line last week that Joe Schmidt was about to spring a surprise on us all, and bring only two dedicated scrumhalves to the World Cup. In the guessing game of who's going and who's not, this was an interesting twist.

It helped that Ian Madigan was quoted along the lines that he'd be happy to play there if required. The attraction is that the third scrumhalf is unlikely to be used in a meaningful way, so you might better use the selection and bring another outfield back. Consider that four years ago, Isaac Boss went as the third-choice nine and played an hour, against Russia, and not out of necessity. That's a lot of bag-holding for five weeks in New Zealand.

To add oxygen to the theory, Michael Cheika announced his Wallaby squad on Friday with just two scrumhalves in it (and, even better, just two hookers): Nick Phipps and Will Genia. So in the event of either of that pair turning up sick on match day, Matt Giteau will slip on the number nine shirt.

The difference between Giteau and Madigan is that the Australian started his career at the base of the scrum, whereas the Leinster man's versatility comprises 10/12/15. Madigan might have the skill to make a decent fist of it, but it would be a tall order.

The risk for Schmidt is fairly daunting: it would appeal to him that he could bring another back three player in what is the toughest area of the squad to select from, but if, say during the tournament, Conor Murray had a soft tissue injury that might take two weeks to fix, you'd have to hobble along with a non-scrumhalf on the bench - or starting if the other scrumhalf gets crocked - for that period, or else fly over a replacement. And once you replace someone they can't come back. It would be well out of character for Schmidt to take a punt like that.

In which case he will have to brace himself for delivering bad news to another of the back three crew. If you accept that he will take five players to cover fullback and wing - and that Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe are the only shoo-ins - then there are seven players scrapping for three places: Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Fergus McFadden, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney.

Jones and McFadden are the least likely contenders, but that still leaves five. Fitzgerald will have started the World Cup camp full of confidence, having won a starting role for the final Six Nations game last season, against Scotland, but when he needed a high-score performance against the same opposition last weekend, he came up short. The finish for his try was very good - the two dropped balls and a couple of missed tackles, less so.

It may be that injury clears the picture for Schmidt. Andrew Trimble is expected to train fully tomorrow but he'll have to prove his fitness at the weekend, either for Ireland in the Aviva or for Ulster in their pre-season friendly in Edinburgh.

So too does Marty Moore need to play some rugby. Missing out on Leinster's win in Belfast on Friday night meant another opportunity postponed so, while he is expected to get game-time against Wales, it would help if he could go from 0-60 in good speed. The belated arrival of a fit-at-last Nathan White will be keeping Moore awake at night.

On the other side of the scrum, the fitness picture is no clearer for Cian Healy. The scenario that would scupper Ireland's chances of winning their pool would be Healy not having travelled, and then something happening to Mike Ross. Check out the resources Philippe Saint Andre has in this area and draw your own conclusions.

While Schmidt seems very unlikely to take a punt on Madigan as cover for nine, you'd hope he would be prepared to put a few bob on Healy: so if the medics tell him that it might be two or three games into the tournament before he is fit, then run with that. Currently, however, a conclusive prognosis is unavailable.

Warren Gatland has his own issues in this area, with the retirement of Adam Jones and the injury to Samson Lee, so chances are we'll see the fast tracking of Exeter's giant tighthead Tomas Francis deliver a first cap for him on Saturday. If Gatland got some value from that, and a much-awaited return for George North, then he'll be happy enough going in to the final warm-up, against Italy.

By then, in the first week of September, we'll all know who's going and who's not. Well, we'll know the names on the squad list. There will be more twists and turns before the short hop across the water.

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