Saturday 22 October 2016

Sleepless nights ahead for Joe

Joe Schmidt gives instructions during squad training
Joe Schmidt gives instructions during squad training

For someone who is renowned for not getting that much sleep, Irish rugby coach Joe Schmidt wouldn't have found much of a cure for his insomnia in the last few weeks.

Firstly, he will be burning the midnight oil in an effort to reduce his RWC squad to just 31 names. Secondly, the performances of some of his World Cup rivals over the past few weeks may have also kept him nervously awake.

Schmidt, a fanatic for detail, will have been studying the form of opposition teams with a microscope over the past month, most troubling of all is the almost exponential rise in the form of France from the disorganised rabble that took part in the last Six Nations Championship.

Looking even further afield, Schmidt would have also seen possible quarter-final opponents Argentina record a historic away win in South Africa, and another possible quarter-final contender, the All Blacks, thrash the Wallabies at Eden Park. The immediate problem is in Group D and France, despite the old party line about taking each game as it comes and never looking past the next game, which in principle is correct but in reality not really.

France's home win against England last weekend, coupled with the way they played for the last 20 minutes against Ireland in the last Six Nations, will be a major concern for Schmidt, especially in terms of their size and physicality. France's pick-and-go game in Paris simply blew England away, and Schmidt will be looking at what type of player he will need to combat such power in a few weeks' time.

First and foremost, though, Schmidt has the unenviable job of cutting his squad down to 31 players after this weekend's match against Wales, and that leaves a lot of quality players wondering if they have done enough to make the cut.

Playing for your country in a World Cup is a dream for all rugby players, made more significant given it only happens every four years. Every player hoping for a spot has no idea where they will be next year, let alone in four, which just adds to the elation or disappointment of selection. It is the equivalent of the Olympics.

Some players on the fringes will not get another chance to shine this weekend, and may secretly hope that the player chosen in his position fares badly. It's not unsportsmanlike, it's just that competitive.

The Irish camp has been a happy, harmonious one to date, but that will change when certain players miss out, and this has to be man- managed as well. In the past other coaches have often failed to realise that in a camp situation players form strong bonds and when one misses out and the other gets in, it can negatively affect the whole squad.

Schmidt will know this all too well, and he is known to be an excellent communicator. He will make sure the disappointed players will hear from him first and not via the media. This weekend we will see a different-looking Welsh side from the one that Ireland walloped a few weeks ago.

Whatever about Ireland, this really is a must-win game for Warren Gatland who has come under serious scrutiny over the past few weeks for the dropping of Welsh legends such as Mike Phillips and James Hook. Gatland also needs some winning momentum before his team's aptly named 'Group of Death'.

Schmidt has the bones of his 31-man squad and that has been in place for months. One can realistically rattle off about 25 players who Schmidt trusts and who has been the core of his Six Nations wins, it's the other six that he will have problems with.

Over the past few week some fringe players like Simon Zebo, Nathan White, Darren Cave, Dave Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Kieran Marmion and others have all thrown their hats in the ring, while some of the more seasoned, reputable players need to pull up their socks this weekend and show some form. The Irish management has always said this would be a "team picked on form and not just on reputation". We will see.

We still await definitive fitness reports on two props in Cian Healy and Marty Moore, both of whom, if selected, will still go into the RWC with limited game-time.

Luckily Ireland has two easy enough games to allow both players the maximum recovery time, and in Healy's case an exception must be made.

It is almost certain that Schmidt will not follow Wallaby coach Michael Cheika's move of selecting just two hookers and two halfbacks for his squad. In many ways it is a calculated move, as it frees up another specialist player somewhere else in the squad, but at this level is still a huge risk.

Ian Madigan could potentially play at No 9 especially in the first two matches, thus saving a travelling spot for the likes of Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Darren Cave or the experienced Gordon D'Arcy.

But I am sure Schmidt won't risk it. The only slight surprises may be the inclusion of Kieran Marmion over Isaac Boss at scrum-half and Nathan White over Marty Moore.

Pope's world cup squad


Hookers: Rory Best, Seán Cronin, Richardt Strauss

Props: Mike Ross, Cian Healy (if fit) Jack McGrath, Marty Moore (if fit) Michael Bent (plays both sides)

Second Rows: Paul O'Connell, Devin Toner,

Back row: Jamie Heaslip, Seán O'Brien, Peter O'Mahoney, Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry,

Second row/back row: Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan


Scrum-halves: Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Issac Boss.

Out-halves: Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson,

Centres: Robbie Henshaw, Jarrod Payne, Keith Earls, Ian Madigan (also out half)

Back three: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo.

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