I’m probably going to get flak for doing this, but I call coach Schmidt into question. Of course I’m not looking for him to be fired or anything…but…there comes a time when you have to say “feck that – in this situation, I need you guys to play a straightforward territory game for the rest of the match, no exceptions.” Right up to the final whistle we hadn’t a clue what we were doing in any situation.
That’s a snippet from the HarpinOnRugby match writeup that has gotten the most hits since our inception seven years ago - a 19-10 defeat by Leinster to the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium back in November 2012. Despite the fact Joe had just led us to the Heineken Cup in his first season, I was really pissed off at how we built a 10-point lead away from home only to let it fritter away and I didn’t care who knew it.
I’m harping on this now because I want to make it clear that I’m not a total Joe Schmidt worshipper...nobody has been free of criticism on this site over the years be it O’Driscoll, Heaslip, Sexton, Cheika, whoever. Hey, even Matt O’Connor prompted an angry blog or six even though some said I worshipped him too ;-)
When it comes to the selections the Irish coaching team have to make over the coming days, as I try to mentally put together a squad of 31 my thoughts always go back to a simple hashtag : #TrustJoe.
Yes, I know that sounds like a major cop out. I’m here to give my opinion and I should be able to say who I think belongs “on the plane” and who doesn’t. In fact that’s normally one of the most exciting aspects of punditry, in rugby union more so that many other sports with all of its complex positions and combinations.
But then I think about how I saw the squad when Joe took over. Even though BOD had one more year at the time, my biggest concern was how the new coaching ticket was going to fill the centre positions he left. We all wondered, we all speculated. And did any of us land on Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne? If anyone but Joe says they did, they’re lying.
Ireland are blessed right now with several what I’d call “elite” players, meaning those who would push for a starting place in any of the 20 squads at the World Cup. And already in this “warmup” series we have seen glimpses of what the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and of course big Paulie can bring to the side.
On Saturday we’ll see a lot more than glimpses...this time there will be actual combinations working together and none are worth seeing more than Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. And with Warren Gatland also having picked close to a full strength XV it should be a much closer contest than that we saw a few weeks ago at the Millennium.
But there are of course some positions which are “pressure points” for Joe’s selection, ones which are bound to give him & his fellow selectors several headaches. Like reserve tighthead, now that Marty Moore appears out of the picture. I’ve always felt Nathan White is ready-made for full test level and tomorrow he finally gets his first full taste of it - though he doesn’t have to be packing down in the front row opposite Michael Bent to have him breathing down his neck.
Luke is getting a run at 13, which I have to think means Joe has him in mind along with Keith Earls in a back up capacity in the squad...but again I’ll say I’m surprised not to have seen more said about Payne’s display against Scotland….I thought he played a near perfect outside centre, at least in the way this coach seems to view the role.
Then there’s the back three...we had a case made for Simon Zebo here on the site just yesterday and for me personally, I think he’s as near to a perfect candidate for the 23 jumper as we have in the squad. Yes, he might have a few issues on D, but if you’re down by 5-7 points and the clack between 65 and 70 and you feel you have no option but to throw caution to the wind, Zebo is just kind of guy you need to call on.
But there I go having the bare face cheek of offering my opinion again! Joe may select Simon, he may not. He has Felix Jones wearing 23 on Saturday as he has done many times of late and while I wouldn’t have him in our 31 at all (nothing against the chap I just don’t have him up there), there’s every possibility he has a seat on the plane ahead of his Munster teammate.
So I guess we best just trust Joe. And it’s not as though we have no reason to. I don’t just mean the back-to-back Six Nations titles either, though they can’t be ignored.
During the week we had the 20-year anniversary of professional rugby in Ireland. But even though it has been that long, the different levels throughout the sport have evolved at different speeds. And this has been evident most of all in the realm of coaching.
Joe seems to be one of “new age” group which isn’t anchored to the old way of thinking and is determined to make a decision only when he has every conceivable bit of information at his disposal, giving around as much weight to the reams of info supplied by the GPS tech boffins as he does his own “gut instinct” watching his players in action.
And every step along the way since he first came into this job it has been clear he has a plan, one that acknowledges some players are going to be injured, one that acknowledges some players are going to find form while others lose it. We can see this in every team selection, every press conference, and most of all, every minute spent on the park by the boys in green.
Now, in case you think everything I am saying about Joe come with a side order of venom aimed at his predecessor, I never had a real problem with Declan Kidney. I was disappointed by our showing against Wales in RWC2011 but he did deliver a Grand Slam and a World Cup first place pool finish - and as well, it must certainly help Joe do what he does not to have to explain his selection and gameplan to a room full of blazers the night before every test match.
I predict Ireland will win on Saturday, though by a much narrower margin than in Cardiff, probably about 5-7 points. It should be a relatively low-scoring encounter. But as intense as our rivalry may be with the Welsh these days, the result in no way matters. What does matter is the list of 31 names to be announced on Monday.
Of course there are to be a lot of quality players disappointed not to be on that list. But as Irish rugby fans, while we will know these players well and will naturally feel for them from a personal standpoint, we must also take the wider view that it is a good thing for Irish rugby to have so much depth in talent.
Which leads me nicely back once more to the hashtag. Nuff said for me. JLP
#COYBIG #ShoulderToShoulder #4ProudProvinces
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), George North (Northampton Saints), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Bradley Davies (Wasps), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt), Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Taulupe Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).
Replacements: Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Paul James (Ospreys), Aaron Jarvis (Ospreys), Luke Charteris (Racing Metro), James King (Ospreys), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), Hallam Amos (Newport Gwent Dragons).