A few things stood out for me from Joe Schmidt’s team selection for the opening RWC game against Canada on Saturday.
One was that this is a first choice selection which includes Dave Kearney and Keith Earls ahead of Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo on the wings so form has been rewarded. Iain Henderson’s claims can no longer be overlooked and the man to make way is Devin Toner. This wasn’t a huge surprise, there’s an increasing body of evidence that Henderson is the real deal but it is notable that Donnacha Ryan made the bench ahead of Toner along with Chris Henry. Henry is now a specialist openside rather than the generalist Jordi Murphy so he’ll be introduced for either Sean O’Brien or Peter O’Mahony with O’Brien moving to blindside. Hopefully Ryan’s inclusion signifies good form in training and a return to fitness for someone whose recent seasons have been blighted by injury. That Nathan White is ahead of Tadhg Furlong indicates that my hopes about Furlong making a step up in seniority may have been premature.
Undoubtedly the big selection is that of Luke Fitzgerald at first centre. I’m not a fan of Fitzgerald at second centre or full back but I think his skill set is well suited to first centre and it’s a pity for him that he hasn’t played there a bit more in recent seasons. His quick feet and balance will get Ireland over the gain line and there’s not much decision making at twelve in a Schmidt system which should suit Fitzgerald. He’s always been a good tackler and this is where I think he has the edge over Darren Cave who I believe struggles with physicality at this level.
Schmidt’s press conferences, pre- and post-match interviews are great value compared to that of his predecessors. He is so genuine that the message rarely changes – the Gospel according to Joe! A few nuggets from the presser associated with the team announcement caught my eye.
“We don’t actually have a massive amount of midfield cover. 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. [my emphasis]”
One of the arguments for picking Fitzgerald in this game is that if Henshaw’s injury doesn’t clear up then Ireland lose a lot of defensive solidity and Cave is not a like-for-like replacement – nor is the versatile Ian Madigan. This is what Schmidt had to say about the young Westmeath man
“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.”
Basically, tackles. Lots of ‘em. Good ones. Few other things as well but, y’know, tackles.
His other comment that I thought noteworthy was this one about the standard of test matches compared to Pro12.
“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.”
We made the argument that including Ringrose, Marshall or McCloskey in the training squad would have increased his options, particularly in light of Noel Reid not nailing down a place in Leinster and a notable decline in Gordon D’Arcy’s performances in the second half of last season. McCloskey’s recent good form has seen a groundswell of opinion that he should be the next man on the plane but the Twickenham experience of Tommy Bowe or Simon Zebo showed that playing out of form or out of position is a lonely place at test match level. Of course, McCloskey is in both form and position so the argument holds! For everyone’s sake, least of all Henshaw, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
I love that Schmidt clearly agonised over his squad picks and it clearly shook him to let some men go. I love how he seems to be honest with the players about where they need to work on to get in. It’s great that when they do that, they then get picked. Action = consequence is really important for players to know exists. It exists with this Irish team.I know plenty of coaches who kind of use deception to try to let on that this or that change might happen, but it never does and they’ve no intention of it. I’d much more respect and want to play for a coach who works like Schmidt. But I don’t think for one minute that schmidt’s press conference part of the job are honest! Nor would I expect them to be and I’m happy enough to read between the lines. Teams spend time putting listening devices in water bottles, employing lip readers in the nfl, cameras to zoom on coaching paperwork, taxi drivers to lift gameplans from their ferry 🙂 and pay video analysts to pour over previous games. In that ultra-competitive environment, would you want to just give away anything to anybody about how you really think! Kidney had a whatever you say, say nothing policy. O’Sullivan’s method was to talk in that many jargony metaphors that the right hand didn’t know if it was coming or going or if it had rung a bell. Schmidt is more subtle and I’d say he thinks long and hard about the precise wording of what he says, but he is playing a game too. Part of the game is placating the rugby public and the journos (“when le seagulls follow le trawler” something, something, something) by giving tit bits of info, but sometimes you just can’t say what you are really thinking.
I wouldn’t write off toner or furlong yet at all, although it’ll be hard to present this as good news to cave, Zebo, bowe or Murphy. I do think the selection is the starting point of spreading game time over the 4 games, but the end point and shape of the team he wants is clear in his mind. That’s barring injury or jaw dropping performance (be that good or bad). Henshaw’s injury and the quotes above mean that plan has hit a bit of a problem. It’s not great news, but it’s not so terrible yet either. Don’t push that hammy gents.
You’re spoiling us moley! Will you be returning to your England caps topic in the next few weeks? I thought it was a fascinating theory and id love to know if you think it has played for Lancaster or not