Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
# fresh faces
Schmidt says Ireland will blood new players in remainder of Six Nations
Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier may be called upon.

READING ANYTHING INTO Ireland’s open training sessions under Joe Schmidt is dangerous, but it was interesting nonetheless to note that Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane and Stuart McCloskey had remained with the group yesterday.

Stuart McCloskey Cathal Noonan / INPHO Stuart McCloskey is likely to win his first cap this season. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Schmidt’s notably-reduced squad trained against the Ireland U20s on Mullingar RFC’s superb new 4G pitch at the end of a short camp this week, as their attention turned towards a visit to Twickenham next weekend.

While the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Donnacha Ryan, Ian Madigan, Rhys Ruddock, Paddy Jackson and Kieran Marmion were released back to their provinces to garner game time, the aforementioned and uncapped trio remained with Schmidt.

Of all of those men, McCloskey is arguably the most interesting prospect for Ireland. His physical stature, dynamism, offloading game and choke tackling are all attractive features, especially with some doubt around Jared Payne’s hamstring injury.

Openside flanker Sean O’Brien is out of the rest of the Six Nations, so is there temptation to give van der Flier a hard-earned debut against an England side that has struggled at the breakdown so far in this Six Nations?

What of Dillane’s claims in the second row now that Mike McCarthy’s season may be at a worrying end? Munster man Ryan will be backed to start, but Dillane will surely now see game time off the Ireland bench at least.

Appearances for all three in Twickenham seem a little unlikely, but speaking after the session against the Ireland U20s, Schmidt indicated that there will be fresh faces in the coming weeks.

“[McCloskey] is actually bigger than all our loose forwards,” said Schmidt. “He is sizeable and he has been working on a few things even post-training with us and we are seeing some good reward from that.

Josh van der Flier Cathal Noonan / INPHO Van der Flier is having a superb season with Leinster. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“I think you will see guys over the next three games that you probably haven’t seen in the tournament so far. I don’t know which of the games or which number of the games, but I think in the last two Six Nations we have been hanging in tooth and nail fighting for the wins that we needed or the [points] differential that we needed.

“We haven’t been in this position where mathematically we are a chance but realistically the chance is a long-shot, where we actually get a window of opportunity to maybe blood a few new guys and chase results at the same time.

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“I don’t think it is going to change our outlook in what we want to achieve but it is going to give us an opportunity to maybe look at a few guys like the big fella [McCloskey] there and a few others.”

The introduction of McCloskey would certainly add something new to the mix in midfield for Ireland if Payne’s hamstring issue does not clear in time for England. The Ulsterman at 12 and Robbie Henshaw shifted to 13 would hugely excite Ireland’s supporters.

McCloskey’s offloading game might add an additional threat for Schmidt’s side when they attack, an area of the game that has caused renewed debate in rugby circles this week.

The likes of former Ireland flanker Shane Jennings feels Ireland need to make better decisions out on the pitch when in possession.

Schmidt himself believes Ireland’s attacking efforts against France last time out were not of the sufficient standard, and that they need to bring a renewed accuracy against the English.

Ultan Dillane Ryan Byrne / INPHO Dillane was in demand in Mullingar. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I think a couple of times that opened them up… we were fading on the ball all the time,” said Schmidt. “I thought it was really poor that we didn’t convert a couple of chances that we should have done better with.

“We were obviously disappointed that the referee didn’t go upstairs because he would have seen that it was a try [for Dave Kearney], but I think it was fairly reported that if the pass was accurate, the hole had been opened up and when you open a hole, you’ve just got to be accurate.

So, those fine margins just have to be finished by us. It is one of the things that has allowed us to maybe get our noses in front in the last two Six Nations.

“If you look at some of tries that we have scored and I know that people will always want more tries, but some of the tries that we did score last year and the year before, there was some last time we went to Twickenham. You don’t get those tries if there’s not a number of things lined up that are very accurate.

“The decisions, the accuracy, the timing, the quality of the transfer; they are all elements that are moving parts that you try and get as synchronised as possible.

“We haven’t quite been synchronised enough or made quite the right decisions at the right times. Because physically you may not have the same power or strength as your opponent, then there’s a challenge for us to be even more accurate if we can be.” / YouTube

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