Very little appears to be running smoothly for the Ireland camp right now as one week of turmoil in the wake of our record hammering against England was quickly followed by another as news of Joe Schmidt’s final squad selection was leaked to the media.
It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for Schmidt and the Ireland camp who were probably hoping to bask in the glory of last Saturday’s hard-fought 22-17 victory over Wales in Cardiff for a little while longer than they were allowed. No chance!
Rumours that Schmidt planned to brief his players on his final 31-man squad for Japan on Sunday (why do that when there is still a week and another warm-up game to go?) proved true and the press were all over it like mud on a shovel.
By Monday morning it was clear that the cat was out of the bag as news of Devin Toner’s shock exclusion began to circulate. Schmidt tried to limit the damage by making an official announcement at 1pm the same day, but the aforementioned cat was already well and truly among the pigeons at that stage with the result that press, pundit and fan alike have been poring over his selection and giving their two bob’s worth ever since.
And they are not happy. The exclusion of the hugely popular Toner would be sure to draw fire even at the best of times but, at a time when Ireland’s line-out is clearly struggling, it is all the more puzzling. No one would dare claim that first and second choice hookers Rory Best and Sean Cronin are exemplary ‘line-out delivery specialists’ which makes Toner’s role as Ireland’s jumper-in-chief all the more crucial.
There is no doubt that the decision to leave out our leading exponent of this critical set-piece will leave us vulnerable. It will also pile additional pressure on Iain Henderson, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony and will send a clear signal to our rivals that our line-out is a weakness and can be exploited. Has Schmidt missed a trick here?
Much of the outcry over Toner’s omission has centred on the inclusion of Munster’s Jean Kleyn, although some would argue that it isn’t a ‘like for like’ swap. Kleyn is seen as a big scrummager who is more dynamic in the loose than Toner. However, the fact that he was part of the scrum that got destroyed by Benetton, Saracens and Leinster in quick succession towards the end of last season doesn’t augur too well. He has a lot to prove. This is a story that will run and run.
But Toner wasn’t the only surprise omission. Jordi Murphy and Kieran Marmion can also count themselves unlucky not to have made the cut. Both have been long-time Schmidt favourites and Murphy even moved from Leinster to Ulster at the start of last season to get more game time with a view to getting a seat on the plane. Strong in defence, he can play anywhere across the back row and offers an additional line-out option. However, Schmidt has gone with Rhys Ruddock who has been superb for both Leinster and Ireland over the past two seasons and deserves his chance on the biggest stage of all. Perhaps CJ Stander was nailed on from the outset, but I think he is somewhat fortunate given the form he has shown this year.
Marmion, meanwhile, probably thought he was in pole position to travel as Conor Murray’s understudy coming into the warm-up series. A starter in Ireland’s win over the All Blacks last November, he had shown some good form for both Connacht and Ireland following his recovery from ankle surgery. However, questions over Joey Carbery’s fitness might have forced Schmidt’s hand into bringing three out-halves and just two number nines, with Leinster’s Luke McGrath getting the nod. It’s a risk, particularly given the injury woes Murray has suffered over past year, but the New Zealander may ultimately have had no choice.
It’s probably less surprising that Ross Byrne, Jack McGrath, Will Addison, Dave Kearney, Rob Herring and Tommy O’Donnell have also been left out of the final 31. Jack Carty showed more in his run-out against Wales last weekend than Byrne did against England and that may have been enough to seal the third out-half slot.
Ulster-bound former Lion McGrath has been supplanted at Leinster last season and that lack of game time has cost him as Schmidt has gone with Andrew Porter and John Ryan in the front row as back up to first choice props Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong.
Kearney enjoyed a remarkable return to form in the latter half of last season and looked good against Italy, but Andrew Conway’s dynamism and ability in the air made him favourite to secure the final wing place.
For some of the players it was probably their last opportunity to play at a World Cup. Others, notably Byrne, Addison, Marmion and Murphy, should still be around in four years’ time and may yet get another chance.
Wales 17 Ireland 22
It’s almost incidental now following all that has happened since, but Ireland beat Wales last weekend - in Cardiff. It goes to prove that a week is a long time in sport. Just seven days after being on the wrong end of a record thrashing by England, Ireland responded in the best way possible with victory over the Grand Slam winners on their own patch. Although not totally convincing, it was a result that was desperately needed.
The fact that it denied Wales a record twelfth home win on the trot made it all the sweeter following Warren Gatland’s remarks about Ireland last week. It appears that he still isn’t over his sacking by the IRFU back in 2001 and never misses an opportunity to put the boot in. It’s unimaginable that Schmidt would do likewise if the roles were reversed. Wales were well below par until the last quarter of the game, so perhaps Gatland should focus on fixing that instead while he ponders whether he really has a deep enough squad to get to the business end of things in Japan.
There was much to praise about the Irish performance. They scrummaged well and the line-out was a lot steadier, although far from perfect. The defence was excellent, a vast improvement on Twickenham, with just a handful of tackles missed all afternoon. This was the last chance to impress for several of the Irish team and they knew it, with Conway, Carty and Chris Farrell among the fringe players who in all likelihood played themselves onto the plane.
We face Wales again at the Aviva this Saturday. It’s hard to know what we can learn from the game given that the final squad for Japan has already been named. It’s a chance to give some game time to players such as Jonathan Sexton and Robbie Henshaw who haven’t featured in the warm-up series thus far and try out a few patterns, but that’s about it.
The Welsh will have something to prove and could make it uncomfortable for us as we look to maintain any momentum and confidence gleaned from last week’s win. It’s not a game we would want to lose given how difficult things have been over the last few weeks. It would be good to head to Japan on a high, but won’t be the end of the world if we don’t.
However, it does beg the question of why the squad was selected a week before the deadline and final warm-up game. Have we created unnecessary pressure for ourselves? What if the team - which is sure to be drawn from the final squad - doesn’t perform? Would it have been better for Schmidt to keep his powder dry until the last minute? We’ll know more at about ten-to-four on Saturday.
By Kieran O’Daly
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