Schmidt will want order restored quickly after losing control of ‘the narrative’

Schmidt will want order restored quickly after losing control of ‘the narrative’
Josh van der Flier autographs a ball for 20-month-old Tom O’Brien ahead of Ireland training at Carton House. Now that the squad is finalised and in the public domain, all the focus of the players and management will be directed towards meeting a challenge of a different nature against a fullstrength Welsh outfit on Saturday. Picture: Laszlo Geczo

In the same way that we shouldn’t have been too crestfallen by the heavy defeat in Twickenham, Ireland’s confidence-boosting win against Wales in Cardiff last weekend also needs to be put into context.

The Welsh team Ireland that faced last Saturday will bear no comparison to the Grand Slam combination Warren Garland will unleash in our World Cup farewell contest next weekend.

In fact, less than 24 hours after Saturday’s game, six Welsh starters along with three more introduced off the bench, didn’t even make their 31 man squad for Japan.

For someone who likes to control the narrative, it’s been a challenging week for Joe Schmidt.

Firstly the necessity to change from the norm and front up to the media on the Tuesday after the Twickenham debacle.

In the midst of the hysteria that followed that defeat, Schmidt seized that opportunity to douse the flames when appearing at a press conference two days earlier than scheduled.

All kinds of rumours were beginning to circulate: Johnny Sexton was out, Conor Murray was out, Joey Carbery was out, Keith Earls was out.

Fake news was beginning to take hold in Irish rugby circles.

Tournament regulations required Schmidt submit his squad to World Rugby on Monday but, for some reason, he had originally decided not to officially confirm his final deliberations until next Sunday.

In now transpires that contingency plans had been put in place, as early as last Saturday, to alter that if necessary.

When details of the squad — and Devin Toner’s omission — began to leak out early on Monday morning it sent social media into overdrive.

Finally, sanity prevailed with the official announcement brought forward to that afternoon.

That’s twice in a week that the management were forced into reactive mode. Quite how the IRFU expected to keep details of the squad under wraps for a full seven days, having made the players aware last Sunday, remains a mystery.

Picking squads of this nature is far from straightforward as the coaches are constantly influenced by situations and events in training that we, on the outside, aren’t privy to. That is why I always give the benefit of the doubt to the management, especially in relation to the marginal calls.

We all love to play the selection game. Lions’ squads captivate us every four years. World Cup squads equally so.

When comparing the 31 players named by Schmidt on Monday to the one I had penned in a far less pressurised zone, over a Sunday morning coffee, we agreed on all but one of the 17 forwards chosen.

The odd one out was Jean Kleyn for Toner. Parking my frequently voiced objection to the three-year residency rule - Ireland is not alone in availing of the qualification criteria which thankfully has now been extended to five years — my preference for Toner over the naturalised South African was based solely on what they might contribute to the squad in Japan.

Toner has been one of the mainstays of this Irish pack throughout Schmidt’s highly successful reign, featuring in 50 of the 67 tests played under his command. A number of the 17 tests Toner sat out was either down to injury or because they were against Tier 2 opposition.

More recently, they were selection calls, notably when Toner started on the bench behind James Ryan and Iain Henderson for the Grand Slam decider against England in 2018.

Since then it’s been clear that, with everyone fit and available, Schmidt’s first choice second row pairing is Ryan and Henderson.

Without question that duo comprise Ireland’s most dynamic locking partnership. Ryan has been a revelation and Henderson has even more to give. He frequently plays within himself.

The Ulster man caught the eye for the Lions against a very good Hurricanes side on the 2017 tour of New Zealand when his work rate, intensity and overall impact on the game was phenomenal.

That is the level he needs to strive for. I really rate him as a player.

Kleyn has played two tests but hasn’t made the type of impact that would mark him out as an automatic selection for Japan. He made little impression against England and was comprehensively outplayed by George Kruis and Maro Itoje.

More dynamic than Toner, Kleyn is picked because he is deemed to bring more physicality and abrasiveness to the cause. All well and good but he hasn’t delivered that on a consistent basis either for Munster or in his two test outings.

As for the opposition second row, who would they prefer to compete against at the line out, Toner or Kleyn? As captain and thrower, I wonder who Rory Best would prefer to have as a target for his banker ball under pressure? How thrilled is the opposition hooker that he doesn’t have to allow for the towering presence of Toner when negotiating his own line out deliveries?

Ireland will cope fine without Toner in the pool phase against Scotland and Japan. When it comes to potentially matching the big boys from New Zealand or South Africa in the quarter-final, not having the Leinster man available in the match-day squad might prove more costly.

The only other tight call up front for me was pruning one from Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy.

Ruddock has always impressed me. The fact that he became the youngest player to captain Leinster when he was still playing U20s rugby, despite the presence of far more experienced players around him, marked him out early on as someone with real leadership qualities. He has captained Ireland on eight occasions and could fulfill that role against Russia or Samoa at the pool stage when Schmidt rests some of the more senior players.

Of the 14 players named behind the scrum, we differed on two. Given his role as the regular back up to Conor Murray and the fact that he started in the win over New Zealand in 2018, Kieran Marmion got the nod from me over Luke McGrath.

Once Schmidt decided that he could only bring two scrum-halves, I suspect that McGrath’s greater familiarity of playing with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery became a factor.

That, coupled with the fact that, apparently, he has been very impressive in training over the last two months, became a key element that swung things his way in this tight call. I get that.

The other point of difference surrounded Will Addison, whom I included on the basis that he was 100% fit. Given his highly impressive showing in the opening half against Wales, along with a proven ability to cover the back three and outside centre, I felt he had done enough to get the nod.

The fact that Andrew Conway played so well against Italy and again last weekend meant he had to be included leaving Jordan Larmour vulnerable. However it has since emerged that Addison has been carrying a calf injury, and with Carbery still out injured, Schmidt wasn’t prepared to gamble.

Now that the squad is finalised and in the public domain, all the focus of the players and management can be directed towards meeting a challenge of an altogether different nature against a full-strength Welsh outfit on Saturday. That is exactly what Ireland needs.

Hopefully Keith Earls,Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton will all clock up valuable game time and, at the very least, Ireland perform.

A win over the Grand Slam champions would help massively after a challenging period for all concerned and send the squad off to Japan next Wednesday with a fresh spring in their step.


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