Schmidt’s dilemma: Stick with Sexton or twist with Carbery

In a season that keeps on giving for Irish rugby, a series win against a major southern hemisphere superpower for the first time since 1979 would offer the perfect ending.

Schmidt’s dilemma: Stick with Sexton or twist with Carbery

With just 12 tests confirmed and the likelihood of three more pre-tournament warm-up games to come between now and Ireland’s World Cup opener against Scotland in Yokohama in September 2019, Joe Schmidt is ready to negotiate the homeward bend.

A number of boxes were ticked last season in terms of integrating a host of exciting new talent in Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Jordon Larmour, and Jacob Stockdale into the demands of international rugby without compromising the competitiveness of the side.

On the contrary. The addition of such exciting young talent running parallel with the hard core experience from the 50-plus cap brigade has proved a winning formula. Ireland carry an unprecedented winning streak spanning 12 tests into their Australian adventure along with Leinster’s double-winning heroics across domestic and European rugby. Rarely has an Irish squad negotiated such a demanding end-of-season tour in better fettle.

There is a reason why, unlike Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones with Wales and England, Schmidt has chosen to bring his fit cohort of British and Irish Lions from last summer’s tour of New Zealand with him to Australia.

The IRFU’s player welfare system has again resulted, despite the massive competitive demands placed on our leading players, in arriving at this point in comparatively rude health. Only nine of England’s 17 Lions tourists make it to South Africa while Gatland has included only two of the 12 Welsh Lions he worked with last summer in George North and Ross Moriarty.

It is no coincidence that both North and Moriarty, who only lasted the opening game on the Lions tour, missed a lot of rugby this season due to injury and hence are comparatively fresh and hungry. The majority of the remaining tourists were available to Gatland but he choose to give them a summer off.

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland

The chance to have practically all of his potential World Cup squad together without interruption for four weeks was just too good an opportunity for Schmidt to pass. While his opposite numbers in England and Wales will be running the rule over potential new World Cup talent to supplement their squad, Schmidt is fine tuning the players he has already decided will make the cut.

The only player traveling that Schmidt hasn’t had a previous hands-on working relationship with is new Munster signing Tadhg Beirne. He has just come off another spectacular season for the Scarlets — where he was named both the players’ and supporters’ player of the year. He has the capacity to add even greater depth to Ireland’s back-up resources and it will be a major surprise if he returns home still uncapped.

Despite the carrot of a rare test series win, this tour remains more about the future — specifically a World Cup tournament that will ultimately define Schmidt’s legacy to Irish rugby — rather than the present in the coach’s overall scheme of things.

On the eve of the squad’s departure last Thursday, Schmidt said as much. “We want to make sure this tour is another building block for what comes in the future.”

He is a highly driven, ambitious coach and if Ireland open the tour with a win in the first of the three tests at SunCorp Stadium in Brisbane next Saturday, it will be interesting to watch his next move.

Joe Shmidt
Joe Shmidt

Does he stick with the tried and trusted who are expected to start this weekend, or twist as he did, despite a first ever victory over the Springboks in South Africa in their opening test in Cape Town two years ago, when making five changes including a first start for Tadhg Furlong for the second test?

The most interesting call on that front could well surround his selection at half back. Does he hold Sexton in reserve for at least one of the tests and start Joey Carbery at No 10? I think he should. He knows Carbery has the temperament to close out big games off the bench in the final quarter but does he have the overall game management to control and direct a test of this magnitude from the outset? That is something he needs to find out.

On the eve of departure the news that Ireland’s captain Rory Best was forced out of the touring party was overshadowed by the confirmation that Carbery was, after weeks of speculation, indeed heading south to join Munster.

Johann van Graan must feel he has won the lottery while Leinster, understandably, are furious at losing a key member of their double winning squad. The root of this issue can be traced to the decision of the IRFU to part company with Paddy Jackson in the wake of the controversial Belfast rape trial.

Ulster are badly in need of a replacement No10 and with all three out halfs in the Irish tour party being provided by Leinster, something had to change. It is to Munster’s benefit that Carbery was more attracted to a move to Limerick than up the road to Belfast.

Despite the loss of Simon Zebo, Munster have the capacity to build a very decent back line next season once Chris Farrell is back in the frame, while the arrival of the highly rated Mike Haley from Sale adds another new face to the mix.

Simon Zebo who is leaving Munster for the French Top 14
Simon Zebo who is leaving Munster for the French Top 14

The bottom line in Irish rugby is that everything is geared towards the success of the national team and decisions of this nature were central to Ireland becoming Six Nations champions this season.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, Schmidt was determined to find a way that resulted in Carbery getting regular game time at out-half given that he only started one game there for Leinster this season.

Carbery’s decision will also be well received by Ross Byrne who is now firmly established as Leinster’s back-up to Sexton. Who knows but that could even open the door for him to establish himself as Ireland’s number two out-half to Sexton if he keeps improving at the rate he did this season. He too is likely to see some game time off the bench on this tour.

Carbery will now be afforded the opportunity he craves to play out-half week in, week out while playing with Conor Murray on a regular basis will also sit well with Schmidt.

Within the Irish camp on this tour, one can only imagine the banter as Carbery will be on the receiving end of abuse from his former Leinster colleagues every time he is seen in the company of a Munster man.

Leinster have every right to be annoyed with the way this whole episode has left them without a key player they have nurtured and developed over the last few years. One of the main reasons they are winning trophies is because of their ability to replace one injured star with another.

Just imagine for a second the scenario where Carbery drops a last-minute goal or kicks a penalty to knock Leinster out of the Champions Cup down the road.

That scenario can wait for another day. The next three weeks is all about backing up Ireland’s recent success on the international field against a vulnerable but talented Wallaby squad intent on using this series to address the negative spin that has attached to the union game in Australia recently.

Their Super rugby teams have been struggling all season while the general public appear to have fallen out of love with the national side. With so much at stake for both squads, this series has so much more to offer than the one-sided, end-of-season purgatory, that characterized so many of these trips in the past. This one offers real bite.

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