Hard to quibble with anything Joe Schmidt has done to date with Ireland
Perhaps it is true that Leinster players are more familiar with Schmidt’s methods and better equipped to execute them
Ireland have won the Six Nations championship. Brian O’Driscoll has had his valedictory home farewell and last tango in Paris. St Patrick’s Day has been and gone, and so normal service has been renewed. It’s back to tribal warfare.
Within a fortnight of being bulk suppliers to Ireland’s coronation as European champions with what must surely be a record for any Six Nations-winning country of 18 players in the final match-day squad, Leinster are pitted against three of their team-mates from that day in Paris. Therein, of course, lies the rub. Only three Munstermen were involved.
Historically, there’s always been a sense of injustice in the province, and Limerick especially, that they were never given a fair hearing back in the days when a panel of selectors known as the Big Five chose the Irish team.
Perhaps as a result, they are also quick to latch onto any perceived sense of injustice, grievance or insult, and there’s no doubt the presence of so many Leinster players, some notionally deemed reservists, being chosen ahead of some of their main men, does grate.
Only Denis Leamy, a tad out of character, has dared to go public with this grievance publicly of their battery of former players working in the punditry/media game. That’s partly because it’s hard to quibble with anything Joe Schmidt has done to date.
Not only has he helped guide Ireland to just a second title in 29 years, and in a year featuring trips to London and Paris, Ireland came closer than ever to beating New Zealand for the first time and, were not that far away from a Grand Slam. As Schmidt put it himself, he wasn’t picking players from provinces, more that he was selecting Irish players. Perhaps it is true that players from Leinster are more familiar with Schmidt’s methods and thus better equipped to execute them. Hence, Anthony Foley was surely on the money when this vexed matter was brought up before Ireland’s penultimate game at home to Italy by Matt Cooper on Today FM, and the current assistant Munster coach diplomatically ventured that more Munster players would work their way into Joe Schmidt’s thinking the more they worked under him.
Nevertheless when asked whether the contrasting representation might be mentioned in the build-up to this coming Saturday’s Aviva sell-out between Leinster and Munster, Foley paused and said tellingly: “I’d be disappointed if it had to be.”
Following their patchy and unconvincing win at home to Treviso, Rob Penney sought to tap into the Munster zeitgeist by billing this Saturday’s game as: “It is basically Munster playing the Six Nations champions.” It was a bit cheeky, and some might think over the top, not least as it could be interpreted as ignoring the contributions of Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, but one doubts any of them consider that the case for a moment. Penney’s comments were also in the context of forewarning the need for his players not to take too much of a grudge into this encounter and so begin to play too individually or without discipline.
Saturday’s squabble is one of five Irish derbies scattered each week over the last five full rounds of the Rabo Pro12, with potentially two more to follow in the knock-out stages (not to mention Europe) and each is liable to have a significant bearing on the final make-up of the table. The result of Saturday’s summit meeting could well ultimately decide which team finishes first and thus not only ensures home advantage in the semi-final but final as well.
Lurking within five and three points of these two are Ulster, who are thus well equipped to move right back into the shake-up for a first or top-two finish by winning in Cardiff on Saturday night. Ulster also host Leinster in their penultimate league game when officially unveiling the re-developed Ravenhill in all its glory before visiting Thomond Park on the final Saturday.
Nor are Connacht entirely on the outside looking in. Presuming the new qualifying format for next season’s re-designed European Cup is confirmed this week, whereby the Pro12 provides seven qualifiers, this would entail one guaranteed entry from each of the four participating countries in the league. As things stand, this would be the top six (Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys, Glasgow and Scarlets) plus one of the Italian teams currently in the bottom two.
Four successive wins, the last three all with bonus points, have elevated Connacht to seventh in the table and within four points of sixth-placed Scarlets, whom they visit on Sunday in a game being televised by RTÉ. Win that and they could be right in the equation for qualification for next season’s top tier European competition. Edinburgh also lurk three points behind Connacht with two games in hand.
Realistically, therefore, this is probably a must-win, and no less than the two protagonists in the Aviva, their game at Parc y Scarlets cold be viewed as their biggest league game of the season to date.