Schmidt shows his hand with a balanced selection
Heaslip to lead side with O’Connell on the bench as coach keeps a few aces in reserve
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt during the squad training session at Carton House in Co Kildare yesterday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
One of Joe Schmidt’s strengths is that, aside from being a very innovative, visionary coach, he’s also a clever selector.
As expected, his opening hand against Samoa tomorrow is a balanced, well thought out selection, with the upcoming games against Australia and New Zealand also in mind, rather than riskily throwing everything at the Samoans from the start with just an opening win in mind and to hell with any potential consequences.
Schmidt has also been true to everything he said in the build-up to this selection. He’s honoured his words about picking on form, fitness and training, with last Tuesday as a cut-off point, and even some of those who made the cut have to be content with a place on the bench.
Furthermore, were he to have started with those whose training and game time have been restricted of late, it could have sent out the wrong message to the entire squad.
So it is that Jack McGrath wins his debut and Chris Henry is granted a start ahead of Cian Healy and Seán O’Brien, while Paddy Jackson is preferred to Ian Madigan with Johnny Sexton, as anticipated, kept back to be recharged and unleashed over the ensuing fortnight.
Ditto Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner ahead of Paul O’Connell; albeit with Healy, O’Connell and O’Brien on a bench with high impact potential and experience, as well as another potential debutant in Dave Kearney.
Ala Sexton, the contributions of the Healy, O’Connell and O’Brien should also intensify as the Guinness Series progresses.
McGrath, whose ball skills for a prop have hugely impressed Leinster team-mates, and Jackson are also surrounded by plenty of Test experience, namely with Rory Best and Mike Ross in the frontrow, and Conor Murray and Gordon D’Arcy either side of Jackson. For the record, the starting XV shows half a dozen changes from the team that signed off an injury-ravaged, inglorious Six Nations campaign in Rome; with McGrath, Toner, Henry, Fergus McFadden, D’Arcy and Tommy Bowe replacing Healy, Donnacha Ryan, O’Brien, Keith Earls, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy.
With just a couple of weeks to prepare, on top of a two-day camp in early September, Schmidt accepted the analogy with cramming for an exam. “Certainly when I went to school, you had a number of options in the exam and so you studied a couple really well and left the others out. I’m not sure we’re complete yet, but we’re going to try to do some things really well and hopefully that’s sufficient to get us over the line, because it is a work in progress.
“And it’s one of the reasons that explains team selection as well, when you are cramming and you’ve only got so much time and there’s a number of players who’ve done all the swat that they need. Those guys were obviously advantaged.”
Akin to messrs O’Neill and Keane, Schmidt’s appointment has heightened expectations for the national rugby team, which the new coach, citing ticket sales for the upcoming games, broadly welcomed.
“I’d like to think we can develop a product that people really enjoy attaching to and if you get that emotional attachment I think that the team, they get driven forward as a result and I think the spectator, they enjoy the experience that much more. That’s the challenge that the team have. It’s a challenge for me and it’s a little bit daunting, to be honest, because of that expectation, but I’m excited by it.
“I didn’t think if I was ever going to be in a job coaching professional rugby, and I kind of fell into it at the start, but since then, just like a player you challenge yourself to take expectations and bring them to fruition.”
The choice of Jamie Heaslip as captain for this match in his capacity as vice-captain to the de facto captain Paul O’Connell – a decision related to the players on Wednesday morning – also makes sense. O’Connell, as he reminded all present on the Lions’ tour, is an exceptional, natural born leader of men.
Heaslip, sitting next to Schmidt, wore the disappointment well. “When Joe told me what the lay of the land was, I was like ‘cool, what’s the next thing?’ because you’ve got to focus on the next thing, which is the game at hand.”
He will lead out Ireland for the ninth time with his customary pride in the job. That there will be a near full house for a tea-time kick-off under lights will, he said, make a “massive” difference.
“Absolutely massive,” he emphasised. “It’s huge for a player to come out and see the support you get from the fans. They’ve fronted up some hard-earned money to come see us play and it’s a huge honour for us to first of all wear that green jersey and then for that amount of people to come and watch you play.”
“I’ve played in all sorts of different stadiums around the world but the Aviva with a crowd would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s an amazing stadium. You’d be jealous of someone like Jack because his first game is going to be in that stadium, that type of arena. It’s gladiator stuff going up against these massive men so it’s set for a great occasion.”