Opportunity knocks if Irish tourists can take the pressure from Argentina
Joe Schmidt wants to meet expectations as he makes eight changes to Ireland side
New Ireland cap Ulster’s Robbie Diack at the Emperador Hotel, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Opportunity knocks for a host of players in the first Test against Argentina tomorrow, for if grasped there is the real chance of breaking into Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad. But with that comes pressure, for if let slip then it can also be a long time, if at all, before the opportunity knocks again.
Amongst the eight changes, it’s fair to say that Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson, the debutant Robbie Diack, Jordi Murphy, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones would not be starting were it not for injured absentees and the rigours of Leinster’s Pro12 final last weekend.
In any event, against an Argentina team missing most of their front-liners, there is pressure aplenty on this Irish line-up. “I totally agree,” admitted Schmidt. “There is a lot of pressure on and one of the things the coaching staff have talked about is trying to create pressure on the tour. Some of the scribes have written recently that England are better placed than we are, Wales are better placed than we are because they are going to places where they are going to be truly tested physically, strategically, technically in fairly hostile environments.” To this he could also have added World Cup pool rivals France, who are playing three Tests in Australia.
“I have no doubt about the hostility that will exist in Chaco but we don’t have the household names that we are going to be playing against, therefore I want the players to feel a little bit of pressure. There is always pressure when a team changes a little bit and the team previous achieved something that these players now have to meet some expectation.”
Somehow though, you sense this is particularly true of Cave and Zebo. In the first of last summer’s two-Test tour to North America, Zebo was on the verge of being called into the Lions squad due to news of Tommy Bowe’s broken hand, and clearly knew it himself such was his distracted and error-strewn performance in the 15-12 win over the USA Eagles. Even so you’d have been given long odds on him not winning another cap in the intervening year.
Yet despite injuries to Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and Craig Gilroy, Zebo fell down the pecking order and few could quibble with the outstanding form of Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney, nor indeed the results. But with the latter joining Earls and Fitzgerald on the casualty list, Zebo is afforded his chance after season-long cajoling from Schmidt to improve his defence and work-rate, notably at ruck time.
“I think Simon is a very talented player,” Schmidt said in what became a tract on his philosophy that the whole is way more important than the individuals.
“One of the challenges for players is to try to make the job easier for the players around them. If he is very good in a particular area and it allows us to get slightly quicker ball or it allows us a little bit more opportunity not to put so many in the ruck or not to overload defensively, and be utterly reliable as a player, it means others players just have to concentrate on just delivering the aspects required of them and people don’t have to double job because players are too good in opposing teams to commit too many people to a job that should be done by an individual.”
“I’m not talking about Simon here, I’m talking generally that that’s a challenge for this team. We’ll be looking at Robbie Diack, we’ll be looking at Simon Zebo because we see some massive strengths in both those players but we want to see some of the all-round aspects that we know we have to be good at.”
“We know we are never going to be the biggest team, we know we are never going to be the fastest players, we’re not going to be the most powerful team, we don’t generate too many powerful players,” said Schmidt highlighting the loss of Stephen Ferris as well as the absent Cian Healy and Seán O’Brien.
“We know some of the opposition we play against do have that. Therefore what can we be better at or what can we do better as a group? And that is the continual challenge for us.”
Less welcoming perhaps is the additional pressure that comes with the unfamiliarity of the terrain this Irish squad will be encountering. Along with the forecast risk of thunderstorms, the stadium is ostensibly a soccer venue which is hosting a rugby Test for the first time and the pitch, which scarcely meets IRB requirements, is incredibly cramped.
“The in-goals are four and half metres, the length is 90 metres,” said Schmidt.
“It means a quality kicking game may get you out of trouble and it may get you into trouble . . .”