JOE SCHMIDT HAS had some big selection decisions weighing on his mind this week, with much of the clamour on the outside of the Ireland camp calling for changes in the wake of defeat in Cardiff.
The Ireland head coach has never been one to fold to that kind of pressure – often insisting he is not even aware of some of the biggest debates – but Schmidt is utterly scrupulous in making his selection decisions.
We can rest assured that each time the Ireland boss makes a call in his team or on the bench, he has considered every aspect of Ireland’s game plan, the opposition strengths and weaknesses, the importance of continuity, the weather conditions, player’s training and playing form, and a whole lot more. No stone is unturned.
This week poses several intriguing dilemmas for Schmidt and with England arriving in Dublin for Saturday’s Six Nations finale, he has apparently been keeping his players on their toes too.
Most of the time, Ireland’s starters will know from very early in a match week, sometimes even before the match week, whether or not they have made the starting XV.
This week, however, Schmidt has been frequently switching players in and out of the ‘first’ team at training in Carton House, keen to prompt the kind of uncertainty that can often bring about improved focus and desire.
Indeed, the camp is in something of a lockdown this week, and that’s understandable given the pressure that has mounted since last Friday night and also the importance of Saturday’s meeting with England.
Were Ireland to lose while Wales beat France and Scotland won against Italy, Joe Schmidt’s men would slip from their current fourth place in the World Rugby rankings, meaning a more difficult pool draw for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Clearly, Schmidt needs to nail his team selection.
The calls for Peter O’Mahony’s inclusion have grown over the course of this championship, but it’s still difficult to see who Schmidt sacrifices from his back row.
O’Mahony adds more than the well-flagged lineout quality – he is world-class in that department – and his leadership, breakdown work, decision-making and passing ability, as well as a dogged ball-carrying game, are all tempting attributes.
O’Mahony is a blindside flanker by trade and CJ Stander has been in excellent form, but it would seem most likely that the Munster captain replaces his provincial team-mate if he does start.
Sean O’Brien had a poor game by his standards in Cardiff, losing possession at two crucial times in the second half – his loose pass to Jamie Heaslip eventually led to George North’s second try – but he is the most ‘natural’ openside and Schmidt has great faith in him.
Still, it’s not inconceivable that both O’Mahony and Stander start, even if that would mean an odd-looking starting back row.
There have been calls for Jamie Heaslip to make way for Stander at number eight, but he is a crucial leader as vice-captain, even if he too was guilty of uncharacteristic handling errors in Cardiff.
Jared Payne’s return to fitness is tempting for Schmidt at outside centre, where Garry Ringrose has been developing promisingly over the course of the championship.
Payne’s defensive reputation is well known and richly deserved, which would be useful against the superb double playmaking threats of George Ford and Owen Farrell. The Ulsterman is also underrated as an attacking weapon, possibly because his strengths are as a facilitator of others, rather than a linebreaking try machine.
The groin issue for Keith Earls, meaning he did not train on Monday or Tuesday, complicates matters for Schmidt somewhat, with Andrew Conway, Craig Gilroy, Tiernan O’Halloran, Fergus McFadden or even Ringrose providing possible options on the wing if Earls does not pull through.
Given his excellence in attack against the Welsh, Schmidt will be hopeful that Earls is passed fit after training tomorrow.
Payne offers Ireland an option at fullback too, having played there on the tour of South Africa, but again Rob Kearney was commanding in the air against Wales and Ireland will expect some English attention in that area on Saturday.
At loosehead, Cian Healy has been pushing Jack McGrath hard all championship, while Iain Henderson was impactful off the bench against Wales, though Donnacha Ryan was impressive and finished out the full 80 minutes after Henderson replaced Devin Toner.
So the possible combinations are multiple for Schmidt, even if it wouldn’t be totally surprising for him to go with an unchanged starting team in the end.
The Ireland head coach cited how Wales had benefited from doing so after their defeat to Scotland, with the players backed by Rob Howley to produce the kind of response that ensured Ireland suffered on Friday night.
Whatever way Schmidt goes tomorrow – he is scheduled to name his team at 1.45pm – these decisions will be among the most important steps towards Ireland earning pride against the Grand Slam-seeking English.
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