Joe Schmidt insists players picked on Test experience for tour to South Africa

Joe Schmidt has defended his decision to take only five players from Pro12 champions Connacht on Ireland’s tour to South Africa next week, insisting those travelling have been picked on proven Test experience, not reputation.

Schmidt has been criticised for picking just a quintet from Pat Lam’s squad, which outgunned Leinster 20-10 in last Saturday’s Pro12 final at Murrayfield.

The Ireland head coach selected 14 players with Test experience from the losing finalists last week ahead of next month’s three-Test series against the Springboks, although yesterday he was forced to jettison versatile back Luke Fitzgerald, who succumbed to yet another injury in Edinburgh — suspected grade two medial knee ligament damage ruling him out of the tour.

A decision on a replacement will be made by Thursday with Connacht’s try-scoring back three from Saturday, Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy all in the mix, although Schmidt yesterday said Munster’s Simon Zebo, initially ruled out through injury last week, may now be fit enough to be considered.

Speaking yesterday as the IRFU announced a new four-year shirt sponsorship deal with Vodafone, believed to be worth in the region of €15 million, Schmidt disputed the charge his 32-man squad had been picked on the basis of past achievements.

“I don’t think the word reputation is applicable. I think performance is,” Schmidt said. “A number of those guys (selected) have performed well at Test level.

“Some of those (Connacht) guys, Tiernan has had an in and out season with injury and he’s only just got back and really started to get a playing rhythm. I had a discussion with him, and think he did exceptionally well on Saturday, he’d done well the week before, certainly two weeks before that, getting up and winning that ball to score the try that mattered, that gave Connacht the home semi-final that mattered, so he’s done some very good things at the back of the season.

“Niyi, this time two years ago was playing (AIL) Division 1B for Trinity, so what Pat’s done to get those guys together and make them as competitive as they are speaks unbelievable volumes for what he’s capable of doing with that team, and what those players have done to make themselves as competitive as they are, is outstanding.

“I do think that we will see some of those guys start to emerge. I think it’s one of the tough positions to make, with the likes of Keith Earls there. I thought Andrew Trimble had a really good season. He was carrying a bit of an injury when he played in the semi-final. I knew that, so I kind of factored that in. I thought Luke (Fitzgerald) was exceptional in that game when he came back.

“It’s hard when it’s a very competitive position. I thought one of the Leinster players who did have a good game at the weekend was still Dave Kearney. He did some very good stuff. It’s a very competitive position for us. If they were second-rows they’d probably have a better chance but it is one of those positions that it is tougher to make it.” Of those second rows selected by Schmidt, two are from Connacht, Ultan Dillane and the uncapped South African-born Quinn Roux, whose inclusion, despite not featuring for his province in the Pro12 play-offs, was explained by the Ireland boss as due to his experience on the tighthead side of the scrum.

Of Fitzgerald’s replacement, he added: “We’ll hopefully have a decision by tomorrow, but we might even have a couple to come into camp and then make a decision. I’ll definitely know by Thursday. I was hopeful that we wouldn’t be in this situation but we are and thankfully we have a lot of quality options.

“Simon (Zebo) was due to be back running this week and so he’s making progress so he could probably run fully next week which would potentially put him in the frame. Again, it’s a decision we’ll make when we’ve spoken to the medics and the players.” With the opener against the Springboks in Cape Town looming in 12 days, followed by Tests in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth on June 18 and 25, Schmidt will need as many fit bodies as he can muster at the end of an already 11-month season if he is to become the first Ireland coach to win a series in South Africa.

“It’s going to be difficult, one of the things will be that we’ll have to utilise the squad we’ll take and that will present challenges in itself; we may have to break up combinations and try new combinations. But that’s part of the investment side of it and part of the performance side of it, because if we can get them to work hard for each other then hopefully we can get three consistent performances at a very high level. It will be very hard to do.”


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