Ire­land’s win­dow of op­por­tu­nity

Coach in­tends to use every op­por­tu­nity in run-up to Six Na­tions to blood more young play­ers for World Cup

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby cor­re­spon­dent

De­feats ran­kle with Joe Sch­midt but none of them are on the scale of the World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal de­feat to Ar­gentina. De­spite a man­i­fest and un­nec­es­sary fear of out­stay­ing his wel­come in Ire­land, it was as­suredly one of the pri­mary rea­sons he opted to ex­tend his stay to the 2019 World Cup. More than any­thing it’s some­thing he des­per­ately wants to put right.

What still ag­i­tates him more than any­thing is the car­nage which an uber-phys­i­cal French side wreaked on the Ir­ish squad in the fall­out of the pool-de­cid­ing win in Cardiff two years ago. To lose Johnny Sex­ton, Paul O’Con­nell, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Ma­hony and Jared Payne for that afore­men­tioned quar­ter-fi­nal a week later in the same city was sim­ply cruel.

Even then, Ire­land thrillingly re­cov­ered from be­ing skinned out wide early on to come back to within a missed penalty of draw­ing level in the sec­ond-half, but the dam­age had been too wound­ing. It is to be fer­vently hoped the group stages two years’ hence, which most likely will cul­mi­nate with a game against the bruis­ing Samoans, will not ex­act a sim­i­lar toll. But ca­su­al­ties there will be, and Sch­midt and co are de­ter­mined thay have the strength in depth to cope.

Anom­alies

One of the anom­alies of the Sch­midt reign is a per­cep­tion he is in essence a con­ser­va­tive se­lec­tor. Yet the blood­ing of eight more un­capped play­ers on the sum­mer tour to the USA and Ja­pan takes the to­tal num­ber of play­ers given their first caps un­der his watch as Ir­ish head coach to 45, ex­actly half of the 90 play­ers used in that pe­riod. Fol­low­ing on from the sum­mer tour, the 21-year-old Ja­cob Stock­dale and 20-year-old James Ryan, who en­joyed try-scor­ing de­buts against the USA, along with An­drew Porter, Kieran Tread­well and Rory O’Lough­lin make the cut again, whereas Dave Hef­fer­nan, Rory Scan­nell and John Cooney didn’t.

By com­par­i­son, since the start of the 2013-14 sea­son, Wales have capped 30 new play­ers, in­clud­ing 11 on this sum­mer’s South Seas tour.

Prior to those 11, only three had been capped since the 2015 World Cup – El­lis Jenk­ins, Cory Hill and Sam Davies. That fig­ure of 45 is li­able to rise to 49 over the course of this month’s Guin­ness Se­ries, given the in­clu­sion in the squad of Bundee Aki, Chris Far­rell, Dar­ren Sweet­nam and Adam Byrne. The Fi­jian game looks like the one which of­fers the most scope to blood th­ese play­ers, al­though Aki must be vy­ing with the once-capped Stu­art McCloskey as a mid­field part­ner for Rob­bie Hen­shaw. When the sides last met in 2009 at the RDS, De­clan Kid­ney gave de­buts to Johnny Sex­ton, Seán O’Brien and Seán Cronin.

Test rugby

Cer­tainly, the word “friendly” is also some­thing of an anom­aly in the con­text of Test rugby, not least when South Africa and Ar­gentina roll into town. The Spring­boks and the Pu­mas don’t re­ally do friendly, and even Fiji don’t con­sti­tute the rel­a­tive sort that Canada, Ge­or­gia and even Samoa have been in pre­vi­ous au­tum­nal win­dows.

Ac­cord­ingly, fol­low­ing on from last year’s mo­men­tous Novem­ber, the South Africa and Ar­gentina games are al­ready sold out while even the Fi­jian match vir­tu­ally is, with 48,500 tick­ets al­ready sold. None­the­less this se­ries, along with next sum­mer’s three-Test tour to Aus­tralia and next year’s Novem­ber matches, of­fer more op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand the squad’s base than the next two Six Na­tions. Sch­midt said as much this week when speak­ing about giv­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to play­ers and con­firm­ing “you’ll see a few changes through the three Tests”.

“So for us, a re­ally pos­i­tive Guin­ness Se­ries is to con­tinue from Ja­pan a lit­tle bit. We don’t have too many win­dows. The next win­dow is a mas­sive pres­sure cooker for us. It’s the Six Na­tions. It’s the big com­pe­ti­tion of the year,” he said.

“If we want to get a win­dow where we can still look to be as com­pet­i­tive as we can be but also grow the group a bit, this is our win­dow, and that’s part of our strat­egy be­hind some of those guys in the back three. It’s part of the strat­egy in the sec­ondrow and in the fron­trow.

“In sum­mary, it’s just an op­por­tu­nity in the mid­dle of the pitch as well. Train­ing today, it’s funny to see Rob­bie Hen­shaw be­ing the small cen­tre with Stu McCloskey and Chris Far­rell there. We used to have Darce and Drico there – it’s a nov­elty,” he said, smil­ing at the rec­ol­lec­tion of how Gor­don D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll de­fied the in­creas­ing pre­pon­der­ance of big men in the mid­field jun­gle. There are some ex­cit­ing new guys in­volved. If they go well I think that’s a suc­cess­ful Guin­ness Se­ries for us, be­cause it’s an in­vest­ment for us, that we want an im­me­di­ate re­turn on but that we’re pre­pared to also take a longer-term view with.”

Bal­ance

This still has to be bal­anced with the ex­pec­ta­tions of the home sup­port­ers, with Ire­land also pro­tect­ing their rank­ing of fourth in the world. The tough­est as­sign­ment could well be the Boks, ranked fifth in the world. The Spring­bok coach, Al­lis­ter Coet­zee, who has blooded 19 new play­ers since tak­ing over af­ter the 2015 World Cup, has named another four un­capped play­ers in a strong squad again led by Eben Etze­beth, who last week de­clared he would be fit to re­sume train­ing on Mon­day af­ter re­cov­er­ing from an an­kle in­jury. The Mun­ster-bound Jo­hann van Graan will also be part of their coach­ing team.

The Boks’ 57-0 thrash­ing by New Zealand in Al­bany on Septem­ber 16th is still used as the ref­er­ence point for their sea­son, but they have re­sponded since with a 27-all draw away to Aus­tralia, be­fore los­ing 25-24 to the All Blacks in a thrilling en­counter in Cape Town four weeks ago. In­deed, those de­feats to the All Blacks have been their only losses in nine games this year.

“I thought South Africa were in­cred­i­bly good against the All Blacks,” said Sch­midt. “You take out Ryan Crotty’s kick-ahead try and Rieko Ioane’s in­ter­cept, I thought South Africa were in­cred­i­bly good. And if that’s where they’ve got to then they’re go­ing to be in­cred­i­bly tough. I know they lost Jean-Luc du Preez, who was look­ing in­cred­i­bly im­pres­sive in the Cur­rie Cup fi­nal last week­end but the peo­ple they’ve got – Eben Etze­beth has grown as a leader in that group and is still in­cred­i­bly young – their av­er­age age would be mid-20s and I think it is a team for the fu­ture that is right here, right now one of the best any coun­try could hope to have. “For South Africa, we would love to be re­ally com­pet­i­tive and get our noses in front, ob­vi­ously.”

The Fi­jian squad in­cludes most of their front-line, over­seas-based play­ers, such as Rac­ing lock Leone Nakarawa, New­cas­tle cen­tre Vereniki Goneva and winger Ti­moci Na­gusa, while there re­mains a pos­si­bil­ity that the lat­ter’s Mont­pel­lier team-mate, Ne­mani Nadolo, will be added to the squad.

Patches of won­der­ful rugby

Fiji have risen to ninth in the rank­ings af­ter wins over Samoa, Tonga, Italy and Scot­land this year, and they be­gin their tour against Italy in Si­cily next Satur­day. Ar­gentina, whom Ire­land will be meet­ing for the first time since that World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal, have had a tough time of it in 2017, slip­ping to 10th in the world af­ter a two-Test home se­ries to de­feat to Eng­land was fol­lowed by six de­feats in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

They have pro­duced patches of won­der­ful rugby, and have been highly com­pet­i­tive in a host of en­ter­tain­ing fix­tures, but they are suf­fer­ing as much for their dis­ci­pline as they are for their pol­icy of not pick­ing play­ers based over­seas such as the Toulon eight Fa­cundo Isa and the pro­lific Rac­ing winger Juan Imhoff. But they still have some star turns from that day in Cardiff, such as re­doubtable skip­per Agustin Creevy, ath­letic flanker Pablo Mat­era and full­back Joaquin Tu­culet. Af­ter play­ing Eng­land and Italy over the next two Satur­days, the game against Ire­land marks their fi­nal match of their tour and their year.

Look­ing ahead to the Fi­jian game, Sch­midt said: “That’s go­ing to be a real phys­i­cal chal­lenge. The last two years we’ve had Canada and Ge­or­gia in those mid­dle Tests and it’s given us a lit­tle bit of an op­por­tu­nity to come up for air. There’s no com­ing up for air with some of the be­he­moths they have and the way they move. They’re a fan­tas­tic, ath­letic team, Fiji, and you only have to look at Nakawara and the skill el­e­ment that he brings; the foot­work of Tuisova, the im­mense power that Nan­dolo brings, and that was pretty ev­i­dent at the RDS re­cently.

“So those sorts of guys are go­ing to be a real hand­ful for us. We know Ar­gentina pretty well and the dis­ap­point­ment we suf­fered last time at their hands, we’d love to rec­tify that. We’d love to scrape our way through with the right re­sult and get three re­sults but I think the qual­ity of the per­for­mance of some of the in­di­vid­u­als we’re look­ing to give an op­por­tu­nity to, that will be equally im­por­tant for us.”

So for us, a re­ally pos­i­tive Guin­ness Se­ries is to con­tinue from Ja­pan a lit­tle bit. We don’t have too many win­dows

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AFP PHOTO

Ar­gentina’s back­row Fa­cundo Isa and winger San­ti­ago Cordero cel­e­brate af­ter de­feat­ing Ire­land in the 2015 World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal at the Mil­len­nium Sta­dium.

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