Wednesday 20 February 2019

Joe Schmidt has full faith in Luke Fitzgerald playing central role

Losing Henshaw a blow, but coach confident versatile Leinster man can shine in midfield

Luke Fitzgerald, who has been named at inside centre, during yesterday’s training session at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff
Luke Fitzgerald, who has been named at inside centre, during yesterday’s training session at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was all going a little too smoothly, wasn't it?

This being Ireland at a World Cup, the flow of positive injury bulletins was bound to stop sooner rather than later and the news of Robbie Henshaw's hamstring problem, which caused Joe Schmidt to reconfigure his team at the 11th hour, was a reminder of how tournaments like this treat the best-laid plans.

That the Ireland coach appeared more upset with the information finding its way into the public domain than the injury itself would indicate that he expects to see his first-choice inside-centre back on the field soon, but he conceded that pitching Luke Fitzgerald in, having not trained in the No 12 channel earlier in the week, is a disruption.

The New Zealander conceded that, when he thought about the opening game six weeks ago, the team he had in mind to face Canada was not the one he named yesterday. There's just no accounting for pesky unforeseen circumstances.

"It's a little bit different, and I think maybe next week and the week after might be a bit different to what we envisaged two weeks ago, even," he said of his team.

"Hopefully that's because players are fully fit and working really hard, making the decisions difficult and not injury-enforced.

Giddiness

"At the same time, there was a bit of giddiness yesterday. Guys were excited when they came in (to Cardiff) last night, but they trained really well today.

"That's a sign of the maturity in the squad, certainly the leadership in the squad, that when the boots go on they roll their sleeves up."

Although Fitzgerald's first run with the starting team in the midfield this week came at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff yesterday, Schmidt does have faith in the Leinster back's versatility.

Citing the time the 28-year-old spent at centre in the build-up to the World Cup, the Kiwi also recalled a stint Fitzgerald had in the No 12 shirt during the 2011 campaign, when Schmidt was his provincial coach.

Still, he was clearly frustrated that Henshaw was robbed of an opportunity to build on his games against Wales and England and progress into the season.

"Coming so late, it is a disruption, I think you all saw the progress Robbie made in the Six Nations and how valuable he became," he said.

"He was involved in 37 tackles in the first two games and then he won that ball in the air in the England game as well as breaking the line in a set play and getting through a lot of tackles.

"In the Welsh game he learned a lot, playing against Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, they were the Lions midfield pairing. He and Jared (Payne) did really well and I thought he was really good against Scotland. That's the sort of progress we were hoping would continue on a similar gradient.

"It is unfortunate that we lost him and losing him right at the end of training just means that to blood Luke in it was necessary to do that on a reasonably short time-frame.

"He had already run in there a few times through the pre-World Cup Test matches therefore he slotted in well and he trained well today. He is a player that I've had playing No 12 in the past and have had confidence in."

Darren Cave looked the obvious replacement after starting at inside-centre against Wales in pre-season, but he appears to have fallen down the pecking order since coming off the bench against England at Twickenham.

"We don't actually have a massive amount of midfield cover," Schmidt said.

"It was a good opportunity to get Luke involved in the midfield. We know Darren can do it so we weren't really too panicked about him having the time there. He played really well in that first Wales away game.

"He found the pace of the game entirely different two weeks ago at Twickenham, and that was a learning experience for him."

The coach repeatedly highlighted Canada's threat on turnover ball during yesterday's team announcement, pointing to the scrum and lineout as areas of real strength from which Ireland can nullify the North Americans.

Coming into the World Cup on the back of successive defeats was not ideal, but it is clear the New Zealander is not overly concerned.

Naming his strongest possible team allows him another opportunity for his key players to find form, with the coach pointedly calling for certain individuals to up their game.

Already, Six Nations regulars Devin Toner and Tommy Bowe must watch from the stands and that is warning enough for those starting, but the coach hailed his side's experience and believes that the systems in place can fire once again at the World Cup.

"Against England, we demonstrated that our scrum was a really strong place for us to go," he said.

"Our defence hasn't been as good as it needs to be as yet, but in the Six Nations we conceded four tries across the five games, the Six Nations before that we conceded four tries and scored 16.

"I don't think that it's suddenly turned bad. I think the systems are good.

"When a season starts, usually the players get to play in the Pro12 and then into Europe and then into Test matches. When you go straight into Test matches, playing good players, it's a little bit more difficult.

"The things that do give us confidence is that we've got through that pre-World Cup phase and, you never want to lose, but we've put a few things together that we've wanted to see and a few things that we haven't done well enough.

"We do feel we've a few solutions up our sleeve and if you look back at that England game, they were probably unlucky not to score another couple of tries, but for us at the same time we created a couple of nice overlaps that we didn't convert either.

"Creating chances doesn't win games, you've got to convert enough of them to get enough scores on the board to apply scoreboard pressure and get the differential on the scoreboard to take the 'W' away."

Irish Independent

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