Joe Schmidt has never been one to shirk the difficult decisions. If anything, he has a reputation for being direct and letting players know exactly where they stand and what is expected of them.
Yet even he appreciates his name was just about the last thing any of his players wanted to see coming up on their phones last Sunday. A call from Joe only meant one thing.
The World Cup is the Olympics of rugby. Four years is a long time to wait for the next event if Joe has just delivered bad news.
If you are Luke Fitzgerald, who as a newly capped 19-year-old missed the cut in 2007, the factage is on your side is of little consolation, especially when history repeated itself and he was omitted again for the 2011 event in New Zealand. With back three slots at a premium, he must have had a very uneasy 24 hours after being forced off injured against Wales on Saturday. However, his inclusion means he is now set to join a very select group of fathers and sons to play at a World Cup.
At the other end of the scale sits the unfortunate Felix Jones. An ever present in Schmidt’s match day, Six Nations winning, squad last season, the return to the fold of Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and Dave Kearney after a variety of injuries had him looking over his shoulder for the last two months.
Having cruelly lost out to an ankle injury on the eve of the 2011 tournament, he again finds himself on the outside looking in, having done very little wrong.
While Dave Kilcoyne and Marty Moore will also feel hard done by, the toughest cut of all is 2014 Player of the Year Andrew Trimble. Looking back to his best in the opening warm-up game in Cardiff a few weeks ago, the recurrence of his foot injury that day could not have come at a worse time. With the attrition levels of the modern game, the versatility shown by Simon Zebo, Earls and Fitzgerald in recent weeks tipped the odds in their favour. On top of that, Dave Kearney’s immaculate display last weekend may also have swung Schmidt’s decision.
There will be much talk around the decision to run with just two scrum-halves and the inherent dangers that come if Conor Murray or Eoin Reddan go down sick or injured on the eve of a big match. But I understand the decision. Isaac Boss did not do enough against Scotland to demand selection and that convinced the management to go for extra cover in midfield with Darren Cave’s ability to cover both inside and outside-centre too valuable to ignore.
That selection also heralds the end of a magnificent international career for the under-appreciated Gordon D’Arcy. He can now retire in the knowledge he has served Irish rugby well.
Schmidt caught many by surprise when pairing Jared Payne with Robbie Henshaw in midfield for the big games in last season. The fact Henshaw was positioned at inside-centre, having played most of his rugby at full-back or outside-centre, was also unexpected.
That is why it didn’t come as any great surprise Schmidt was prepared to look outside the box when coming up with his final combination, even if a certain risk factor attaches to a number of the options.
Selecting only two loose-head props is brave considering the injury issues surrounding Cian Healy but that call would not have been made without the support and insight of the medical team.
While the inclusion of Michael Bent had been mooted on the basis that he covers both sides of the scrum, I was not convinced he is of the required standard to face the likes of France, Italy or Argentina at either tight or loose head in the event of emergency.
He has proven a valuable squad addition to Leinster but this is a different level, with all opposition now using scrums as a means of generating penalties rather than just restarting games. Mike Ross now has decent back up in Nathan White and Tadhg Furlong who, with just 24 minutes of international rugby behind him, was the big winner in yesterday’s announcement.
Incredibly Leinster now have six Irish international props on their books along with two World Cup hookers in Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss.
The Irish management have put a huge amount of thought into the selection process and the net result is a very strong, experienced and of most importance, a flexible and versatile squad.
Carrying just two scrum halves is a gamble but we are not alone on that front. Wales opted to carry just two hookers, an even bigger risk in my opinion, as did Australia who also, along with Japan, opted for just two scrum-halves.
Somebody is bound to be caught on the hop over the course of the tournament. Let’s just hope it’s not us.
With so much energy and focus expended by the management in whittling the squad down to the permitted 31, at least the preparation for the respective pool games can now start in earnest. Schmidt would have hoped to arrive at this point with three wins behind him in the warm-up games but last Saturday’s defeat to Wales, while unwelcome, is not the worst thing.
There is no perfect formula. Four years ago Ireland lost all four warm-up games yet topped a World Cup pool for the first time when beating Australia in Auckland. The defeat to Wales coupled with the narrow win over Scotland has highlighted issues that need to be addressed, not least an improved discipline after the concession of 15 penalties last weekend, along with the creation of more line breaks and penetration across the three-quarter line. At least the defensive structure was vastly improved last weekend after the failings exposed against Scotland.
England were so poor last time out in Paris that they are under big pressure to perform against us on Saturday.
Stuart Lancaster’s squad selection has left a lot of people scratching their heads with so many inexperienced players included. In total, his squad boasts 760 caps compared to Ireland’s 1,043.
His decision to go without any out-and-out open side groundhog is surely asking for trouble, given that pool opponents Australia and Wales could well line out with two a piece in Michael Hooper and David Pocock for the Wallabies, along with the Welsh duo of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric.
Saturday’s defeat was disappointing but not damaging in any serious respect.
With at least six front-line players to come back in for the trip to London, I expect that Schmidt will run with his strongest combination for the first time in the warm-up series at Twickenham.
With all the pressure on England, it would be hugely beneficial to wind up this preparatory phase with a win at the venue which hosts both World Cup semi-finals in just over seven weeks time. In fact the World Cup draw makes it a possibility that the same two teams could face meet again in one of those two contests. What a prospect that would be, one that both squads would gladly take right now.
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