No untouchables on Joe’s watch
Coach seeks to grow the collective against one of the world powers in international rugby
Clearly, there won’t be 15 Untouchables under Joe Schmidt’s watch. While the new Ireland head coach has to be taken at his word that his selection policy is partly with a view to building a squad as well as a team, one of the side effects is everyone is indeed being kept on their toes.
Conor Murray may have returned from the summer as Ireland’s first Lions’ scrumhalf since John Robbie and Colin Patterson in 1980, but took a couple of steps too many on occasion before Eoin Reddan quickened the tempo last week, so reputations count for little in Schmidt’s scheme of things.
Likewise, it can’t be too often that a debutant scores two tries in a 20-minute cameo off the bench and finds himself outside the 23 the following week, even though he covers wing and fullback whereas his replacement on the bench has never played wing. (Well, there is Peter O’Mahony, of course.)
Nonetheless, Robbie Henshaw is an exceptional talent (with either he or Rob Kearney, presumably, covering wing) and after starting at fullback against the USA and coming on as a replacement at outside centre against Canada, is promoted as Schmidt – echoing Declan Kidney – seeks to build a squad of “30 to 35 players”.
And, as with Ewen McKenzie, there is more scope for building strength in depth during the November window than in a Championship.
It could be Murray may yet returns to face the All Blacks, as might Gordon D’Arcy, although one ventures the inside centre berth is now Luke Marshall’s to hold.
The anticipated return of Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Seán O’Brien and Johnny Sexton should ensure Ireland hit the ground running harder than they did last Saturday – and as they’ll need to do.
The choice of Devin Toner ahead of Mike McCarthy is most definitely a form selection, for McCarthy’s energy levels do not appear as high this season and the vastly improved Toner ought to protect Ireland’s lineout ball better, as well as go after Stephen Moore’s throw more.
“It is less high alert, it is more trying to grow the collective,” emphasised Schmidt of his selection approach.
“I think Dave Kearney is incredibly unlucky. I think that Dave did really well in parts of his game when on he came and there were a couple of parts he didn’t quite nail either. So we are trying to balance not just match performance but training performance as well.
“Robbie Henshaw is a guy who if we don’t give him an opportunity now and we need him in the future then I think we are less prepared.
“I think we have got to prepare as we can be for what the future holds. As we saw last year there is a real risk in not having the opportunity to mix selection up a little bit while at the same time keeping selection strong.”
Whereas Australia retain only four of the starting XV which met Ireland the last time the countries met, at the 2011 World Cup, Ireland retain 11 of their line-up from that seismic 15-6 win.
So despite the new era, revolutionary fervour, there’s something old, new, borrowed and blue about this team, the latter being a tried and trusted Leinster spine for the time being.
“Australia are one of the world powers in international rugby. They are going to be incredibly tough to beat and we feel we have put a good team out against them,” said Schmidt, who cited the fact that O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll are starting their first Irish Test in harness for over two years as evidence they have to prepare for the probability that they will be missing some of their best players sometimes.
O’Connell, the re-instated skipper, came over all wise and sage-like, in admitting: “Even last week, you take for granted even popping into Rala’s room in the week of the Tests and how special those moments are,” he said in reference to the room of Paddy O’Reilly, Ireland’s baggage man.
“The bus to the ground, the Aviva, those moments are going to be less and less for me now. There isn’t as many ahead of me as I would have liked to have thought there would have been a few years ago.
“It definitely makes you enjoy it more, cherish it more. But the build up to the last few weeks has been great, the training has been good and it gives you a great vibe going into the last couple of years of my career.”
He has been struck by the core of leaders throughout the team, five established provincial or Irish captains plus a few other experienced players.
“I think it’s incredibly important. I think any team I’ve been involved in, with Ireland or Munster, has had people across the pack and across the backline who could have been captain. You can see it with other teams; it is very rare a young, inexperienced side wins big Test matches or tournaments.”
IRELAND (v Australia): R Kearney; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll, L Marshall, F McFadden; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, S Archer, M McCarthy, K McLaughlin, C Murray, I Madigan, R Henshaw.