Sunday 16 June 2019

Embarrassment of riches leaves Irish wingers worried

27 September 2015; Keith Earls, Ireland, is congratulated by team-mate Simon Zebo after scoring his side's second try. 2015 Rugby World Cup, Pool D, Ireland v Romania, Wembley Stadium, Wembley, London, England. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
27 September 2015; Keith Earls, Ireland, is congratulated by team-mate Simon Zebo after scoring his side's second try. 2015 Rugby World Cup, Pool D, Ireland v Romania, Wembley Stadium, Wembley, London, England. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If Ireland's back three players felt like making the final cut for Joe Schmidt's World Cup squad was some sort of relief, it hasn't lasted.

After seeing off Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden and Craig Gilroy, the six contenders for the Nos 11, 14 and 15 jerseys might have felt relaxed for a moment before realising their real work was only beginning.

Ahead of this Sunday's meeting with Italy, all of them have a compelling case for inclusion.

Of the gang of six, only Dave Kearney is not a Lion but he played an integral part in Ireland's Six Nations success in 2014.


Tommy Bowe is closing in on Ireland's top try scoring record, Keith Earls is their leading World Cup scorer, while Rob Kearney will go down as the country's greatest full-back.

Luke Fitzgerald is a player of supreme natural ability who can cover an array of jerseys, while Simon Zebo is a unique talent who conjures up moments of magic from nothing.

All have performed for Schmidt at various junctures and, with Bowe bouncing back from his Twickenham nightmare last Sunday against Romania, all look to be in good form.

The elder Kearney brother's glute strain may simplify the selection this week if he can't train, allowing Zebo to hold on to the No 15 jersey, but Schmidt looks to have an embarrassment of riches.

The coach described it as a "luxury" on Sunday, but getting the balance right could be crucial as France loom large on the horizon. Does he pick three and stick to them? Or does he rotate through to keep players on their toes and afford as much opportunity as possible.

The contenders are on tenterhooks.

"If I'd scored 10 tries yesterday I don't know if I'd have done enough," Bowe said yesterday.

"Joe has us all on our toes, Dave Kearney is playing exceptionally well so what can you do? You've just got to keep your head down and keep going.

"Listen, if I don't get my opportunity next weekend, hopefully I'll get it the following week. It's a tough competition, there are going to be injuries. Opportunities will come. You've just got to stay positive."

In case you need reminding, that's Tommy Bowe speaking. That Tommy Bowe. The series-winning Test Lion and Grand Slam hero who has delivered in so many big games for Ireland that when Enda McNulty advised him to remember the high points of his international career, he mustn't have known where to begin.

When a player like Bowe is worried, then you know you've got options.

There are now even whispers about Rob Kearney's place after Zebo's sublime pass to Earls on Sunday, but the nuts and bolts of the Louth man's game should ensure that he'll play when fully fit.

Still, Schmidt will hope that Kearney watched how Zebo got involved as a second distributor and hit the line while looking for options. It is all about the competition driving each other on.

No matter which back three Schmidt selects on Sunday, Ireland will have a world-class trio in reserve.

Sure, the second-row remains a talking point and the coach has a decision to make in how he balances his two brilliant loosehead props, but no position will vex him more than the wide men.


A look at the World Cup statistics shows Earls in contention for all of the key areas in his position, but all of the back three players are racking up impressive numbers.

It is not just metres gained, but each of the players is driving himself to win ball in the air, hit rucks precisely and make their tackles count.

The stakes getting higher has a bearing too, however, with the calibre of opponent likely to get gradually better each week Ireland remain at the World Cup.

That's where Bowe and Rob Kearney's experience counts. Neither has ever been left out of a Schmidt team for a pivotal game when fully fit. Earls has never been fit for a pivotal game, but looks undroppable.

At different times, Dave Kearney and Zebo have been first choice, while Fitzgerald provided a spark against Scotland.

Zebo and Fitzgerald's versatility may count against them when they're contesting the wing slots, but might open up bench opportunities.

Coaches talk about good headaches, but this is the kind of selection scenario that must keep Schmidt up at night agonising over the best combination. It's a good problem to have as long as you get it right.

"What can you do? We're back in training tomorrow, and we'll just be doing what we can," Bowe said.

"That's the strength of the squad, that the coaches really do have us under such pressure, we go out there, we don't know anything, so we're going out there to just put our hand up.

"It's tough, of course it is. I want to be playing every week. There's always going to come a time when there's players pushing for your place and I see it as a good challenge.

"I'm having to fight to get back into the jersey again. Dave's playing exceptionally well, the whole back three are . . . I'd love to be the number one and go on out there sure of my place, but that added pressure and competition for places brings out the best in all of us.

"Training-wise I think everybody's just busting a gut to do all they can to put their hand up. The coaches are telling us there's spaces open.

"So it's good to know that we all have an opportunity."

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