THE HOOKER SPOTS are going to be one of many intriguing dilemmas for Joe Schmidt over the course of the next 11 months in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup.
As captain, Rory Best is in pole position, but there is likely to be a strong tussle behind him as Sean Cronin, Niall Scannell, Rob Herring and James Tracy compete for places on the plane to Japan.
Herring’s toe injury has been badly timed ahead of the upcoming November Tests, while Niall Scannell is currently something of a worry with his ankle issue.
One man who is fit and firing, ready to make an impact next month, is Leinster’s Cronin, the most dynamic hooker of the lot and a player whose impact with ball in hand is hard to ignore.
Cronin scored a try for Leinster in their defeat to Toulouse on Sunday in the Heineken Champions Cup, showing his power to burst through Charlie Faumuina’s tackle attempt, then carry Zack Holmes and Thomas Ramos over the line with him.
Like Leinster as a collective, Cronin had imperfections in his performance – his loose offload eventually led to Toulouse’s first try through Maxime Médard – but the Limerick man is hopeful he’s done enough to convince Schmidt and be named in the Ireland squad tomorrow.
“Hopefully, we’ll see what happens,” said Cronin after Leinster’s defeat. “There’s a lot of competition out there at the moment and hopefully I’ll get a call from Joe, I’ll be in the squad and we’ll see what happens after that.”
Cronin had a tough time on Ireland’s tour in Australia back in June, coming off the bench in the first Test, being omitted for the second, then being ruled out injured for the third after he had been named to start.
With Herring and Scannell both having impressed Down Under, Cronin will be more determined than ever to show Schmidt his value next month.
His try in Toulouse couldn’t prevent Leinster from suffering an unexpected defeat that will rankle for some time.
“[There were] just a lot of inaccuracies across the board, really, in all aspects of our play at times,” said Cronin, “big moments in the game that ultimately cost us.
“Fair play to Toulouse, they kept the pressure on us. We were expecting that coming down here so we are pretty disappointed. Bath back-to-back now [in December] are crucial games for us and we’ll just have to move on and get better from it.
“We said at half-time that if we upped the tempo, just held onto the ball and didn’t do anything stupid, didn’t push the play and just kept working them, working them… and we felt comfortable.
“We got into their 22 a few times and after that, we just lost a big moment. It’s crazy when you come up to this level, or international level, if you come up to those big moments and you don’t win them they can be the turning of the game and it just went against us.”
Cronin said Leinster had been “pretty level-headed” in the aftermath of their eight-try win over Wasps in round one and stressed that “there was no complacency” following that 52-3 success.
The hooker paid credit to Toulouse for their excellence in causing the upset.
“You can see that they really buy into it,” said Cronin. “They’ve got the four stars on the chest. They’re a big club and they really buy into the European competition, which is great. We knew that coming down here.
“Guys had played here before – I hadn’t – and we knew about the atmosphere.
“I think [assistant coach] John Fogarty said it was an attack on the senses but I don’t think that disrupted us too much. It was just trying to push the play too much in the first 25 minutes and leaving them back into the game.”
It will be a major surprise if Leinster don’t bounce back strongly from this setback and, while never accepting defeat, Cronin feels it could end up being something of a blessing in disguise.
“That’s what I was thinking inside,” said Cronin. “Seanie [O'Brien] was talking after the game and saying that we need to move on and build on this. I was thinking in my head that it wasn’t necessarily a kick up the arse but it is early in the season and early days yet.
“We have two huge games against Bath and, looking back on this, there are a lot of things that we can look to do better for the next day that will definitely help us.”
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