So Paul O’ Connell’s farewell to these shores was not a victorious one, with Ireland’s nemesis of recent years, Wales eking out a deserved victory in a game which admittedly went down to the final play but more of that later. Of course, the big news this week was the announcement of Ireland’s thirty-one man World Cup squad, an event that is guaranteed to cause considerable debate, though nothing close to the discourse and back and forth that the coaching team themselves would have gone through.
On selecting the squad, the only people that Joe Schmidt and his coaching team needed to answer to were the players who had been omitted. The non-selection of Andrew Trimble appeared to take up the lion’s share of debate –though honourable mention goes to Dave Kilcoyne- and the general consensus is that Ireland’s player-of-the-year in 2014 was dreadfully unlucky to miss out. Still, Schmidt’s concern -not that he needs any outsiders validation- about Trimble’s lack of international rugby, just thirty-four minutes, in the last twelve months is irrefutably valid. In any event, the squad is picked now, every selection is defensible and with our pool opener a mere fortnight away it is time to look forward. After we look backward, that is.
On reflection, our feeling is that last week’s Ireland’s performance was exactly as expected, no more and no less. As predicted here –and probably everywhere else- Joe Schmidt’s players showed little inclination to bring their three-quarter line into play and as has often been the case for Irish wingers in recent years, David Kearney and Keith Earls main tasks involved fielding and chasing kicks. Most importantly the remaining starters got some much required competitive action under their belts without sustaining any lasting injury, save for the duel scares for the historically unlucky Earls and luke Fitzgerald.
Though a forgettable game for many, highly touted New Ross prop Tadhg Furlong–adept at either side of the scrum- will remember the day forever, being both his Irish debut and the performance that earned him the last front row spot in Joe Schmidt’s squad. There always seems to be shot from the dark and this year –at least as an objective outsider- it seems that Furlong has taken this mantle. In years gone by a player like Furlong may have been deemed too inexperienced which is a ludicrously irrational line of thinking. How else does a young player gain valuable experience and indeed international playing time?
For all the grumblings earlier in the week about Wales consistently overpowering and generally dominating Ireland, it took a desperate and brilliant collective tackle on Seán Cronin to prevent an Irish victory at the death. Further to this Wales fielded virtually their entire starting fifteen –there is no side in the world that would be weakened by Justin Tipuric’s presence- and given the gargantuan task they will face just to escape the most difficult group in Rugby World Cup history, a confidence-bolstering victory away from home was a near-vital requirement. Warren Gatland, as his custom -not unlike a heel in WWE- had a pop at Ireland’s conservatism but Joe Schmidt, whilst understandably a little prickly, left the bait well alone.
The greatest concern from Saturday –creative unknowns aside- was Wales’ and namely Justin Tipuric’s ability to dominate on the ground and relentlessly slow down the vast majority of Irish ruck ball. Which leads us to the back row selection conundrum for the final group game against France and whichever knockout game(s) is/are to follow. There has been considerable, undeniable clamour of late for the inclusion of the in-form, destructive Iain Henderson somewhere in the back five of the pack. His inclusion in the match day twenty-three must be, barring injury, beyond any possible doubt, but there are many who would like to see him start. And, with good reason on current form. If he partners Paul O’ Connell then the lineout will surely suffer for the loss of Devin Toner but it will mean Henderson –no mean lineout operator in his own right- could provide a genuine ball carrying threat in tandem with Sean O’ Brien and a hopefully fit again Cian Healy.
This, of course, is only one possible course of action. If Schmidt is inclined to stick with his usual second-row pairing then there may be a call for Henderson to replace Munster captain Peter O’ Mahony at blindside flanker. We’re big fans of O’ Mahony around here, particularly of his selfless defensive work, but his form of late has at least caused murmurs for change. But if Henderson comes in then surely Ireland will be repeating the mistakes of 2011 when everyone believed Stephen Ferris, Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip could simply smash our way to victory, forgetting of course that wars are won by mind as much as by muscle.
So to the argument for the inclusion of Henderson’s clubmate and Ireland’s best snaffler of ball on the ground, Chris Henry. A large part of why Australia beat New Zealand in the recent rugby championship decider was how their back row –which entailed a pair of nominal openside flankers in Michael Hooper and David Pocock- absolutely decimated their opposition on the ground, providing a flow of quick ball and thus creating gaps in New Zealand’s defence around the ruck area. It turns out after years of scientific research that the All Blacks cannot beat you if they don’t have the ball. So now, Henry legitimately joins the debate as the vital component in ensuring Ireland’s ball retention while also nullifying the opposition’s attacking foundations.
Tomorrow in Twickenham sees the tried and tested combination of O’ Mahony, O’ Brien and Heaslip with only the former’s place in the tournament’s opening game realistically up for grabs. Nonetheless and based on the above we feel there is a very real possibility that Ireland’s back row will be tinkered with throughout the tournament, with a different three-man combination utilised as circumstances require. The utilisation of rotation in the very best sense of the idea.
U.S. sports allow coaches the luxury of rolling substitutions throughout the game so, for example, a basketball coach can adapt his system mid game if he wants to change from small ball to a bigger lineup. Joe Schmidt and his opposition coaches will not be afforded such assistance and perhaps because of this there is a prevailing view in both Irish and anglicised sports that you have a best starting fifteen or eleven, end of discussion. This World Cup will ostensibly reward the best ‘team’, but for Ireland to win Joe Schmidt will – particularly considering his methodical study of each opponent- assuredly need to know when to choose the correct fifteen, and more specifically back row to meet the demands that a specific opponent poses.
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