DONAL LENIHAN: Will the real Ireland please stand up?

Last weekend’s final round of Champions Cup pool action served to remind us that unless a team is emotionally invested in the outcome of the contest, chances are they can forget about winning.

How else do you explain Leinster’s 41-point hammering at the hands of Wasps? 

Their starting side included 11 of Ireland’s Six Nations squad, Wasps had four of England’s. Wasps, however, were chasing a home quarter-final which this result delivered while Leinster were chasing... well it’s quite hard to work out exactly what they were doing.

The previous week, a bunch of young kids were thrown together at the RDS against a decent Bath outfit and blew them off the pitch. 

The honour of starting a Champions Cup game for the first time with all their extended family and friends watching from the stands was enough to deliver a performance of stunning quality, despite the fact that they had no chance of making the knockout phase of European competition.

Likewise Munster, after the fallout from their second-half collapse in Paris the previous week, were so emotionally invested in the outcome of the back-to-back fixture against Stade Francais at Thomond Park that they were never in any danger of losing.

The big question now is what weighting Joe Schmidt places on the performance of so many of his front liners in Leinster colours in Coventry last Saturday when he sits down to select the Irish side for the opening game against Wales? 

To what degree does he separate the lack of emotion invested in the respective performances of some of his trusted lieutenants such as Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, and Devin Toner when he picks his team?

Schmidt may be pigeon-holed as a conservative coach, at least on the international stage, but attempting to second guess his selection is, at times, fraught with danger. 

Very few would have foreseen that midfield combination of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw for last season’s opening international against South Africa prior to its announcement.

In truth, Joe himself didn’t even consider it until the two were paired together, almost by accident, in training due to an injury to Gordon D’Arcy. 

That’s the thing with Joe, he trusts his instincts. More often than not, he makes the right call. 

If he likes what he sees unfolding before his eyes on the training paddock, he’s not afraid to back himself.

With the emergence of some exciting new midfield talent or in the case of Ulster’s Luke Marshall, the re-emergence, Schmidt now has some challenging decisions to make over the next few months.

The fact that Warren Gatland appears certain to reunite his Lions test midfield partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies — who has now recovered from the knee injury that cost him his slot at the recent World Cup — may encourage Schmidt to stick with last season’s winning combination of Henshaw and Payne.

Only issue here is that both are chronically short of game time and neither has occupied their international roles since the World Cup.

For the second week in a row, Payne was at full-back in Ulster’s comprehensive win over Oyannax over the weekend while Henshaw played his first game last Saturday since Connacht’s defeat of Munster in Thomond Park back in November.

He was extremely impressive at full-back that day but occupied the outside-centre berth against Russian minnows Enisei-STM last weekend.

With the mixed messages emanating from the Leinster camp after Johnny Sexton’s latest bang to the head, the biggest plus to emerge from the weekend for Schmidt was the form of Payne.

Despite looking knackered after scoring a well deserved try on 61 minutes, his physical conditioning will be fine when Wales rock up at the Aviva.

Of far more importance was his decision-making under pressure. Payne is a very intelligent rugby player who executes the basic skills with ease and invariably makes the right call at the right time. His range of passing is superb and he also runs excellent support lines.

With Henshaw nailed on for a starting role, the emergence of Stuart McCluskey as a genuine contender and the impressive form shown by Marshall and Luke Fitzgerald in both midfield slots, Schmidt is spoiled for choice to a certain degree.

Depending on the type of game he wants to play, he must decide where Payne offers most value to the team. From an attacking perspective he plays his best rugby for Ulster from full back. 

The support lines he runs from deep have the capacity to generate key line breaks and opportunity for others to finish.

Contrast his form at present to that of Rob Kearney. The current Irish incumbent was anonymous for Leinster last Saturday. It wasn’t that he played particularly badly, it was that he didn’t play at all. His work rate off the ball was poor and he never offered himself as an option in attack.

Kearney’s basics as a full back — his fielding and positional sense — are second to none so it depends on what Schmidt is looking for.

If his priority revolves around defensive organisation then Payne, who makes the same type of quality defensive reads from outside-centre that Brian O Driscoll excelled at, will remain in midfield.

If Schmidt looks to expand his options in attack, then Payne may provide that from full-back. Given his experience and presence within the group, Kearney needs to offer more.

Henshaw also excelled at full-back for Connacht in that recent victory in Limerick. 

That said, Schmidt may be reluctant to break up his favoured midfield axis of Henshaw and Payne, given the experience and quality offered by Roberts and Davies.

Given his recent injury profile, Schmidt also needs to decide who will act as back up to Sexton should anything happen to him over the course of the championship. 

Will he opt for the inform Paddy Jackson or stick with Ian Madigan to fill any potential void?

A change at out-half could potentially alter the balance of the back line. Madigan has played with Henshaw and Payne before but if Schmidt opted to start the in form Jackson, would he be tempted to slot McCloskey, who is having a great season, outside him given that they play together for Ulster?

That would release Henshaw or Payne for a deeper role from full-back but would involve a lot of reorganisation. With very little time to prepare for that opening encounter, Schmidt may opt for minimal change.

With Wales first up and away trips to France and England to follow, getting off to a winning start at the Aviva Stadium is an absolute necessity if Ireland is to seriously challenge for a first ever outright championship three in a row. 

Whatever team Schmidt selects, at least we can be certain that it will be emotionally invested in delivering a performance and that will only be the starting point.

GAA stalwart Corcoran was a fantastic character

I was shocked to hear of the untimely passing of Cork GAA stalwart John Corcoran last week.

John was a contemporary of mine in UCC and was a fantastic character. 

Despite his strong GAA links, he took more than a passing interest in what was a very good UCC rugby side at that time, and regularly offered his support.

I bumped into him one evening on the eve of the 2007 Six Nations championship in a well-known Douglas hostelry. 

With Ireland scheduled to play in Croke Park for the first time and favourites to win the tournament, John reckoned it would be Irish rugby’s greatest achievement.

“Why so John?” I asked. 

“Five away games,” was his succinct reply, followed by that familiar broad smile.

A big man in every sense, he reminded me of Moss Keane in so many ways. 

My sincere sympathies extend to his family and many friends in the GAA community.


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