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.