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36 players and lots of lessons: Schmidt gets wider look at Ireland in Six Nations

Tadhg Beirne and Kieran Marmion are the latest two to be involved in this championship.

Murray Kinsella reports from Cardiff

WHEN ANGUS GARDNER blows the whistle to start Ireland’s clash with Wales in Cardiff today [KO 2.45pm], Tadhg Beirne will become the 35th player used by Joe Schmidt in this Six Nations.

If Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion gets off the bench, he will make it 36 over the course of this championship – second only to injury-ravaged Scotland’s use of 37 players this year.

Ireland have had their own injury issues and there’s no doubt that has played a central role in Schmidt widening his selection view but, equally, he has been happy to give opportunities in this World Cup year, pointing out that the 2019 Six Nations has come with a “slightly different brief.”

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has used 34 players so far in this championship. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It is, of course, easier to point to an altered brief midway through a championship when your title hopes have already taken a major dent but the chance to provide game time for a wide spread of players has been a major positive for Ireland. 

Second row injuries have meant Quinn Roux – not even named in Ireland’s original Six Nations squad – started two games and called the lineouts in both. He also made an appearance off the bench against England and should get another replacement cap today.

Ultan Dillane has added three more caps to his tally in this championship, while Ulster scrum-half John Cooney has picked up four – albeit with only 41 minutes of game time in the process.

With Joey Carbery suffering a hamstring injury, Jack Carty became the 54th player capped for the first time by Schmidt and is set for his third appearance in green if he gets off the bench in Cardiff.

Two starts for Chris Farrell, an 80-minute stint at fullback for Jordan Larmour, Dave Kilcoyne’s emergence as number two in the loosehead pecking order, Jack Conan making two appearances before today, Jordi Murphy playing against Italy, and more.

Sean Cronin’s start versus Italy and Robbie Henshaw’s outing at fullback against England – even when it hasn’t gone as well as hoped, Schmidt has been able to learn more about his squad and its depth than even he would have expected.

We still don’t know for sure who he would pick if all his locks or centres were fit at the same time, but it’s clear that the depth Schmidt desires so much has been growing.

Chris Farrell with Bundee Aki Chris Farrell got two starts in the Ireland midfield. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We have had to use or rotate players a lot over the years,” says Ireland captain Rory Best. “Certainly with the Italy game and the few changes we made and injuries… it’s funny, you come into the championship and you talk about the second row, people wondering who won’t be picked, who will be on the bench.

“Then a couple of injuries later, one of the guys who started against Italy [Roux] was not in the squad at the very start of the competition.

“It was the same in the centres – we were wondering, ‘which one, Garry, Bundee or Robbie, can we put on the bench?’ With injuries, that is why you have the squad depth and have so many players.

“Marmo [Marmion] has been injured for a long time. He has come back with a couple of really good Connacht performances and now he will get a chance to show what he can do.

“He’ll want to take his opportunity in an Ireland jersey, full stop, but he’ll also want to show that he’s the man to be in that squad going to the World Cup too.

“It’s in the back of peoples’ minds. We are fully focused on this game but people also want to show, especially if you sometimes feel that when you’re on the outside the door is closed. If it just opens slightly, you want to make sure that you go through it.”

What value have Ireland gleaned from this Six Nations aside from the possible World Cup squad selection? 

Tactically, it is even clearer that Garry Ringrose is a crucial cog in the machine, providing a kicking option outside Johnny Sexton and also contributing his footwork and distribution to the attack, as well as strong communication and leadership.

Kieran Marmion Kieran Marmion returns to the squad today. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The importance of variety around the ball-carrier has been underlined like never before, with Ireland at their best so far against France when they had options to tip-on short passes, swivel to go out the back door or carry directly.

The importance of applying their pressure game inside the opposition’s defensive third was underlined by its absence early in the championship and then its success against the French.

The lineout had a poor day in Italy but Schmidt and his coaching staff will have been pleased with exposure to Test-level calling for Roux, Iain Henderson and now James Ryan today – the fourth player to call the lineout for Ireland in this Six Nations after Toner did the job against England in round one.

“It’s great to see that in such a critical area of the game, we have a lot of guys there,” said Best. “You go way back to when Paulie [O'Connell] was here – if Paulie didn’t play, you’d really struggle to get a lineout caller, then Donnacha Ryan emerged a little bit.

“Now to have guys like Hendy, Quinn and James, all capable of calling a lineout. It’s really encouraging.”

Perhaps as important as anything, Ireland have learned about themselves mentally in this Six Nations, particularly after failing to deliver against England in round one.

That underperformance was the latest slow start Ireland have made to a Test window and it’s something they will hone in on before the World Cup.

“After that England game, we thought we had taken a step back in just everything really,” says Best. “I thought we had prepared really well but for whatever reason, we didn’t perform but we looked a lot more like ourselves last week [against France]

“We have got to make sure we get better because we are going to have to be better this week. Then when the Six Nations finishes we will have to address why we have started the last couple of seasons and our autumn series reasonably slow.

Peter O'Mahony with Sean O'Brien Ireland are keen to end the Six Nations on a high. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We have got to make sure we leave the Six Nations at a point we can build on. We don’t want to have a drop to go up again. How can we keep pushing it up? Ultimately we want to ensure that bar is as high as possible leaving the Six Nations.”

And so, a win in Cardiff today would most likely seal a solid second-place finish in the Six Nations for Ireland, a fine return after losing at home to England.

Even if Warren Gatland’s side claim a Grand Slam, there has been value for Ireland in this championship.

Players used by Ireland in this Six Nations:

[Starts/sub appearances/minutes played]

Cian Healy [3/0/167]

Dave Kilcoyne [1/3/135]

Jack McGrath [0/1/18]

Rory Best [3/0/194]

Niall Scannell [0/2/49]

Sean Cronin [1/2/77]

Tadhg Furlong [4/0/247]

John Ryan [0/2/41]

Andrew Porter [0/2/32]

James Ryan [3/0/240]

Quinn Roux [2/1/148]

Ultan Dillane [1/2/109]

Iain Henderson [1/1/87]

Devin Toner [1/0/56]

Tadhg Beirne [0/0/0]

Peter O’Mahony [4/0/320]

Sean O’Brien [2/1/136]

Josh van der Flier [2/2/143]

CJ Stander [2/0/144]

Jack Conan [1/1/137]

Jordi Murphy [1/0/80]

Conor Murray [4/0/279]

John Cooney [0/4/41]

Kieran Marmion [0/0/0]

Johnny Sexton [4/0/237]

Joey Carbery [0/2/65]

Jack Carty [0/2/26]

Bundee Aki [4/0/251]

Chris Farrell [2/0/160]

Garry Ringrose [2/0/152]

Robbie Henshaw [1/0/80]

Keith Earls [4/0/275]

Jacob Stockdale [4/0/311]

Andrew Conway [0/2/74]

Jordan Larmour [1/2/129]

Rob Kearney [2/0/160]

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey on The42 Rugby Weekly as Ireland bid to spoil Wales’ Grand Slam party in Cardiff, and the U20s target their own piece of history.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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