Joe Schmidt had called the process of selecting a 31-man squad for Ireland’s 2015 World Cup campaign an imperfect one but having finally taken his leap into the unknown, the head coach likes the look of the group he hopes can reach at least the semi-finals.
Hope is Schmidt’s word and is very different from expectation, which, for a pragmatic short-termist such as himself, tends not to stretch beyond the likelihood of day following night. And yesterday, as he discussed the squad he and his coaching team had arrived at following six gruelling hours of discussion and debate on Sunday, the New Zealander was at pains to underline the distinction between what one wants and what often actually happens.
“I don’t have any expectations of achievement. I have lots of hopes,” Schmidt said of what he would like to achieve at the World Cup, which for Ireland begins 17 days from now against Canada in Cardiff and preferably will not end until captain Paul O’Connell leads his side out in the final at Twickenham on October 31.
“I probably have an expectation we can work as hard as we can, an expectation we will take it one game at a time because there are banana skins early on in our pool, and having watched the Canadians play Glasgow over the weekend, I know some of those players very well. I am very friendly with the guy who captained them in the weekend, Jamie Cudmore, and have massive respect for the player he is and the power he generates.
“And some of the other players they have, the likes of the DTH Van Der Merwes, the (Jeff) Hasslers.
“We have an expectation if we can stay focused on what’s immediately in front of us, the coaches will cast their eye a little bit further. I have said for us, we want to try to get to that last four. If we can. That’s probably my hope. My expectation is a bit more pragmatic and a little more short-term focused.”
Schmidt is justified in an approach that has served his two-year tenure with the IRFU and delivered back-to-back Six Nations titles. It has certainly focused the minds of his players on the next challenge and having made what he agreed were the most difficult decisions of his coaching career over the weekend, he was immediately back into game mode, preparing his narrowed-down squad for this Saturday’s meeting with World Cup hosts England at Twickenham, both teams’ final pre-tournament Test.
Schmidt likes the hand he has dealt himself after nine weeks of training and three Test matches in which to formalise his thinking. He has made some big calls in opting to go with just two specialist scrum-halves and backing fly-half Ian Madigan to act as cover for them. Likewise in promoting Leinster’s third-choice tighthead Tadhg Furlong, not just as cover for Mike Ross and Nathan White but for looseheads Cian Healy and Jack McGrath to boot. And he has come to terms with having to cut loose players of the calibre of Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden, Dan Tuohy, Dave Kilcoyne and Felix Jones.
The end result, once the emotion of breaking the bad news to them was overcome, was the realisation he had a squad still to work with in which he was really happy.
“I think one of things about it is we have used so many players in the last two years you want them all to be part of it because it is the pinnacle. I guess training today: it’s what I enjoy most, and seeing them move and the enthusiasm and you feel like you have got a good group.
“We have got a lot of confidence in the group and we want them to demonstrate that confidence going out against England. That is a really tough last lead-in game. I’m not sure how any can ever call a match against England a warm-up. I don’t think it computes with our guys and their guys are very similar I think.”
Of his squad he said: “I like the fact they’re all quality contributors. I like the fact I do think we can pose a threat to opposition teams across the board.
“I think we can play with width. We can play narrow if the conditions determine we need to. I think we can mix-up our game sufficiently with the personnel we’ve got and hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to do all of that.
“I like the fact we’ve got some really good experience and we’ve got some really good eagerness of youth and lesser experience. I like the mix of experience the players bring from the different provinces and from different experiences.
“I know Nathan White’s only had two Test matches. But, he has propped a number of times against any of the three southern hemisphere looseheads that get put out... On the other hand to see players like Robbie Henshaw coming through is exciting.
“Even in the second row there, I know players must feel a bit of pressure. Donnacha Ryan is an incredibly astute player, who’s coming back into some of his best physical condition. Iain Henderson, again, reminded us of the athlete he is and Dev Toner, with his improvements in the last two years, has contributed massively. While the skipper may still be untouchable in that group, I’m sure he doesn’t feel like that sometimes when he sees what the other guys are delivering.
“The competitiveness within the squad is also very good. It is hard enough to leave some of the back-three players out. Now you’ve got the back-three players, which ones do you go with? That competitiveness within the squad, hopefully, will drive the squad because there’s certainly going to be competitiveness externally.”
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