Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has again gone with what he has always done in his trophy-laden Irish career and made selections based on form. This strategy gives encouragement to all the players who have missed out this time to propel their provinces to new heights at club level, while giving the lucky few who were selected a reason to kick on knowing they are there based on merit.
I do have one concern about the squad ahead of the Tests against South Africa, Fiji, and Argentina. Namely, a complete lack of experience.
RWC 2015 Mistakes
In the build-up to the quarterfinal against Argentina, Ireland had the spine of their team ripped out in the space of seven days. Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe were all missing through injury or suspension. Ireland were caught out cold to begin with but clawed their way back to level the scores at 20-20. However, Ireland didn’t have the men on the pitch to tell them to slow the game down, keep their discipline and keep the scoreboard ticking over. Ireland continued at a pace that was unsustainable, leading to broken play opportunities that the Pumas pounced on and devoured. The final score read 43-20 in favour of the South Americans.
Is history repeating itself?
Ireland are walking into this Test series without Jamie Heaslip, the only natural leader along with Rory Best. Some will point O’Mahony, others to O’Brien or Rob Kearney, or even C.J. Stander as the players that can fill that leadership void and keep this Irish team together when things are going wrong.
Kearney is interesting as he seems to have a God-given right to selection at this stage for Ireland despite not really being in good enough form to even make the squad. Even O’Brien’s starting credentials might have been questioned had Josh van der Flier not picked up an injury at the last hurdle before the squad met at Carton House this week. If the leaders’ places are under pressure, then can they be counted on to have the voice they need on the pitch?
Sean Cronin’s omission was a big surprise given Niall Scannell’s absence and Schmidt has gone for Rob Herring and James Tracy as hookers. The props were as expected really, though I would like to have seen Marty Moore get a recall for his exploits at Wasps. Schmidt has also resisted the temptation of calling in Scarlets’ second-row trailblazer Tadhg Beirne, while the interesting question around the potential selection of Donnacha Ryan after his move to Paris was avoided when Ryan was ruled out through injury. The aforementioned van der Flier and Heaslip are the notable absentees in the back row (again through injury) with Tommy O’Donnell being the main beneficiary of those absences.
The halfbacks are as you were. Conor Murray (rightly) has an iron grip on the No. 9 jersey while Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath will provide the backup. I would also point to Munster’s James Hart who missed out due to a lack of game time, but needs to take his chances now when he gets it down in Limerick. Sexton will continue at out-half, though there seems to be confusion in the pecking order (with Paddy Jackson on hiatus in court) should Sexton get injured. Ian Keatley’s selection is well deserved, as is that of Joey Carbery, though he has been playing fullback all year for Leinster so it will be interesting to see where he is deployed.
At centre there is an intriguing selection mix. Schmidt has opted to go big and brash with the recall of Stuart McCloskey and debut call-ups for Chris Farrell and the newly qualified Bundee Aki. Robbie Henshaw will start somewhere, it’s just a question of what number will be on his back. If Henshaw plays 12, then Aki plays 13. If Henshaw plays at 13, then it’s between Farrell and McCloskey for the inside centre slot. There are lots of options here, it is just a question of getting the selection correct.
The back three I believe is where Schmidt has got it horribly wrong. Keith Earls is a nailed on starter for the two big tests against the Boks and the Pumas and the selections of Jacob Stockdale, Darren Sweetnam, Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney are justified. The selection of Rob Kearney is what irks me and the small matter of Simon Zebo’s departure at the end of the season and therefore his non-selection for the Tests.
The new boys have little to no experience and some would argue that Kearney will be their guide. The problem is that Kearney is struggling for form, fitness and game time, and to put that leadership responsibility on his shoulders (coupled with Tiernan O’Halloran’s snub) is unfair and a disservice to the rest of the team. Earls has to focus on his own game and do what he does best (crossing the whitewash), while Dave Kearney is only back on the international scene after nearly two-year in the wilderness. Andrew Conway only won his first cap in the spring and doesn’t have the on-field experience needed to be a factor despite being on the fringes for several years.
Zebo would have been perfect in that role from fullback, but these subtle selection errors could have a destabilising effect in terms of defence in the back line. I hope I’m wrong, and I still think Ireland have enough to put all their opponents to the sword, though if they are not careful they could be in for a long November.
My Ireland XV to Start versus South Africa
1. Jack McGrath, 2. Rory Best (c), 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Devin Toner, 5. Iain Henderson, 6. Peter O’Mahony, 7. Sean O’Brien, 8. CJ Stander, 9. Conor Murray, 10. Johnny Sexton, 11. Jacob Stockdale, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 13. Robbie Henshaw, 14. Keith Earls, 15. Andrew Conway
Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Cian Healy, 18. John Ryan, 19. Ultan Dillane, 20. Dan Leavy, 21. Kieran Marmion, 22. Joey Carbery, 23. Adam Byrne
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