Stakes high as Joe Schmidt faces biggest decisions of his career

August 31 is a date that has loomed large in Joe Schmidt’s thought process for some time now.

Stakes high as Joe Schmidt faces biggest decisions of his career

Monday next is the cut off point for the announcement of participating countries World Cup squads and Schmidt will stretch it to the limit before making his final deliberations.

At this stage, the vast majority of the major decisions have been made and he is down to an ‘either or’ situation in one or two positions. Getting those tight calls right could yet prove key. If he is still struggling with the various permutations, at least he can take solace from the fact he has more slots on offer than any of his predecessors.

For the first three tournaments, squads comprised only 26 players, despite the fact that there was less time for recovery between pool games. The increasing physicality attaching to the professional game deemed it necessary to increase the squad size to 30 players from the 1999 event onwards.

The requirement to have a complete reserve front row on the bench for every game has expanded that number to 31 this time out, with the caveat that every squad must name five prop forwards on its rota.

To win a World Cup, with a schedule of seven games in as many weeks, requires strength in depth in every position. You cannot afford to carry any passengers. That hasn’t always been the case, with several squads containing players picked to travel yet never experiencing any game time.

The physical demands are so great now that it is very unlikely any player would start all seven games while you must also factor in the near certainty of losing at least two front liners if you plan to go the full distance. As a consequence, getting the split right between your forward and back resources is crucial, as is having cover in the area that carries the highest attrition rate, usually the back row.

Schmidt is already on record that he favours a split of 17 forwards and 14 backs, which I would support. Anyone following the fortunes of Irish rugby in recent times will have no difficulty in slotting in the first 25 names but when choosing the final six slots, a number of variables come into play, not least the ability of a player to cover a number of positions to international standard.

With that in mind, Schmidt picked Keith Earls at outside centre for the Irish Wolfhounds against England Saxons in Cork last January despite the fact he was playing his best rugby after his long injury travails on the wing.

He repeated the exercise in the opening warm-up game against Wales, clear in the knowledge that the Limerick man was back to his best when performing wider out. The only question Schmidt wanted answered was, could he perform to the same level of competency in midfield? The fact that Earls ticked that box in Cardiff will surely have cemented his place in the squad.

Likewise Simon Zebo was handed the No. 15 jersey against Scotland to answer similar questions.

He too showed sufficient awareness of the basic requirements of the role in terms of his positional sense, fielding, kicking, ability to join the line and counter attack to answer any query the coach had in terms of his adaptability.

The only lingering doubts harboured by the coach revolve around non-position specific areas such as his work rate and some temporary defensive lapses. For me, Zebo’s inclusion is a no-brainer.

Even if he fails to win a starting place, he has the capacity and temperament to change a game off the bench. In a tournament of this nature, that ability is worth its weight in gold.

The biggest worry facing Schmidt at present is the uncertainty surrounding the fitness of Cian Healy and whether or not to gamble on his inclusion in the squad without getting any game time in the warm-up matches. That and achieving the best mix to carry at half-back are the decisions that will be left until the last minute.

With a pool schedule that offers two comparatively straightforward openers against Canada and Romania, Healy could, if the medical team deem him ready for competitive action by September 19, be eased back into action in those two games with a view to having him right for at least a bench role in the key outing against France, leading to a starting role come the knockout phase.

From what we have seen of the French in their two warm-up games against England, it is imperative that Ireland have a competitive scrum against France. They destroyed England’s first-choice pack last Saturday night in Paris and look back to their disruptive best. In Slimani, Ben Arous, Debaty, Atonio and Mas, they have serious fire power in their propping ranks. That offers them the opportunity to make a powerful bench impact.

In that context, Healy may be a gamble worth taking but only on the advice of the medical and conditioning teams. The fact that fresh injury doubts surround the fitness of back-up tight head Marty Moore is also a worry in that context.

Michael Bent has shown great character after a controversial start to his Irish career to bounce back to the point where he is now deemed a certainty for inclusion, on the basis that he can cover both the tight and loose head sides of the scrum.

That is fine against Romania or Canada but starting him against either France or Italy is an entirely different ask. Schmidt also needs to take a closer look at Nathan White against Wales on Saturday.

Mike Ross has been immense of late but Schmidt needs to legislate for what happens if Ross and Moore were ruled out of that French game.

In relation to the cover at half-back, the worst-kept secret in town is that Schmidt is contemplating the inclusion of an additional back three player by selecting only two scrum-halfs in the squad. In the event of an emergency, Ian Madigan is seen as a potential stand-in and has been training in that role.

Isaac Boss did little to enhance his cause with a disappointing performance against Scotland but running with only two scrum-halfs is an even bigger gamble than carrying Healy. The risk factor here is that if Conor Murray or Eoin Reddan went down sick or injured within 48 hours of a game you cannot bring in additional cover for him.

In my experience, in the days when you could only name five substitutes, Murphy’s Law usually came into play in the one area you may have been exposed for cover. Having to resort to Madigan as a stand-in against the likes of France or Argentina is fraught with danger.

Schmidt’s dilemma is that the third choice scrum-half or hooker usually sees little or no game time and you end up leaving out a potential starter to accommodate them in the wider squad. Australia have bucked the trend by only including two of each but the fact that Matt Giteau has started six tests at No. 9 has facilitated that. Not having recognised cover at hooker amounts to a massive call on Michael Cheika’s behalf.

The big question now is will Schmidt be influenced by his Leinster predecessor’s call or will he opt for the more conservative route? Accommodating Boss will mean leaving out a player of the quality of Felix Jones, Dave Kearney, Gordon D’Arcy or possibly even Tommy Bowe or Zebo.

That is why Schmidt will leave it to the last moment to run through every possible scenario in his head. At least it serves to highlight the depth of quality available to the management team. It’s a good problem to have but only if the right call is made. Unfortunately you won’t know that until you’re in the heat of battle.

More in this section