Saturday 24 March 2018

Risk-taker Schmidt rolls his dice

The coach is expected to field questions on his squad today, and top of the agenda will be his decision to leave Isaac Boss at home and take a chance on Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan staying fit
The coach is expected to field questions on his squad today, and top of the agenda will be his decision to leave Isaac Boss at home and take a chance on Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan staying fit
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It wouldn't be Joe Schmidt without a surprise or two and, while he hasn't been able to keep a lid on his 31-man squad that will be formally announced today, the Ireland coach has still managed to retain his shock value.

Throughout the World Cup warm-ups, second-guessing the New Zealander has become something of a national sport, but by choosing to go with just two scrum-halves, picking Tadhg Furlong and Darren Cave and leaving out Andrew Trimble and Felix Jones, Schmidt managed to fool everyone.

On Sunday night, he began the process of telling the wider squad members they hadn't made the cut, with Trimble, Michael Bent, Fergus McFadden and Felix Jones among the difficult conversations on his list.

Yesterday, he gathered his slimmed-down panel together at Carton House to prepare for England. As he said last week, the World Cup starts here.

The coach is expected to field questions on his squad today, and top of the agenda will be his decision to leave Isaac Boss at home and take a chance on Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan staying fit.

The notion of Ian Madigan covering scrum-half has been doing the rounds for a few weeks now and has been badly received in some quarters. Ireland will hope that he's never tested there, but the risk is there if Murray or Reddan suffer a knock early the tournament.


Similarly, the decision to bring three specialist tighthead props and just two looseheads is a head-scratcher, particularly given the doubts over Cian Healy, who has yet to make an appearance since undergoing neck surgery towards the end of last season.

Schmidt last week floated the idea of Healy playing some part against England on Saturday, and now the Leinster No 1 looks certain to be on the bench at Twickenham.

Players can be replaced at 48 hours notice during the tournament, but if one of the looseheads picks up a short-term knock or goes down in the warm-up, it remains to be seen who will be next in line.

None of the contenders have a body of work at loosehead prop. Nathan White hasn't played there during his time at Leinster or Connacht and was not asked to switch sides during the provincial games he played in pre-season.

Ross is an out-and-out tighthead, so Furlong may be the one who covers across, with the coach banking on the standard of their in-house scrummaging sessions to bring him on.

Switching from tight to loose is said to be the easier move, but it would appear to be a big ask for the Wexford youngster, who only made his international debut last weekend.

Marty Moore is the biggest loser, given he has been Ireland's No 18 when fit since the 2014 Six Nations success, but a foot injury compounded his delayed return from shoulder surgery and a combination of White's form and his inability to get any game-time under his belt cost him.

Omission is a blow for Bent, who was expected to be named as the fifth prop given his capacity to cover both sides, and the New Zealander appeared to have done little wrong.

Dave Kilcoyne might have felt he was next in line given Healy's problems, but he also misses out.

The rest of the pack is as expected, with Iain Henderson now a live contender to start the big games after his latest barnstorming display last weekend and Donnacha Ryan in ahead of Dan Tuohy, while Jack Conan was always unlikely to displace any of the travelling back-rows.

Behind the scrum, things get even more interesting, with the pressure point of the back three costing Ireland's 2014 Player of the Year his place.

Andrew Trimble just didn't get enough time to prove his fitness after hurting his foot against Wales in the first warm-up game.

He got through the 80 minutes for Ulster in Edinburgh last Friday, but his eight months out with a toe problem and the long time it took him to heal when he suffered the latest knock combined to see him miss out.

Of course, the Ulster winger could still play a part. Schmidt is set to give an update on the fitness of Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls today and, with four Tests to come before Ireland play France, it's unlikely that this 31-man squad will make it through the pool.

Earls remains the greatest concern after suffering facial damage against Wales. He underwent a scan on Saturday night, but the news that he is in the squad has eased fears. He is likely to be stood down this week regardless after being concussed in a tackle on George North, while Fitzgerald's glute problem is a worry given his record of problems in the core area.

McFadden and Jones are also left behind despite a positive contribution during Schmidt's time, but the coach has decided that he needs cover in the centre and Cave gets the nod.

The centre goes to his first tournament as back-up to Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, which eases the pressure on Madigan if either needs to be rested against Canada or Romania.

Given the importance Schmidt places on training, his ability to challenge the starters in midweek will also be part of the equation.

It means Gordon D'Arcy has likely played his final game of a stellar Test career and it remains to be seen whether he'll play for Leinster for the remainder of his contract or step away.

Since he arrived in Ireland in 2010, Schmidt has never been afraid to take a calculated gamble and he has done so again with this squad.

Almost everything he's done since taking over at Leinster has turned to gold, but the World Cup is the biggest moment of his tenure and a different challenge altogether. He's made his first move.

Irish Independent

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