Joe’s Schmidt’s selections for Argentina Tour all based on perfectly rational arguments
The hope is Ian Madigan and Tommy O’Donnell can make up lost ground by the time of World Cup as Ireland will be better for it
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt at the announcement of the squad to tour Argentina next month. Photograph: Inpho
As ever with Joe Schmidt, there were perfectly rational arguments for all his selections yesterday and one can be absolutely sure the merits of every player in the squad to tour Argentina, or missed out, were forensically examined.
As the coach who also guided Leinster to two Heineken Cups, a European Challenge Cup and overdue Pro12 title in three seasons, following on from his contribution to Clermont Auvergne’s only French Championship crown, and then Ireland’s second Championship title in 29 years, he has also constructed a fair body of work around himself. Mr Rugby knows his stuff.
Fourteen months and 14 Tests out from the next World Cup in England, where Ireland have familiar conditions and a relatively favourable draw, this squad retains a strong core of those who delivered in the Six Nations while also seeking to generate further competition for places.
James Cronin has had an impressive breakthrough season, pushing David Kilcoyne hard for the loosehead spot in Munster with his strong scrummaging. With Jack McGrath also travelling in the absence of Cian Healy, who is world-class and who’s ankles need a rest, a problem position looks to have more depth for years to come than any other.
Given the list of absent hookers, the promotion of Rob Herring adds to the depth here. A good defender, with a good arm and good ball-handling skills, at 24 Herring is one of those players who should develop further in the Irish system than he would have done in South Africa. Ditto Robbie Diack.
Kieran Marmion has looked a real prospect since being pitched into the Connacht scrumhalf slot at the start of last season, becoming virtually an ever present ever since. He is one of those scrumhalves you come to take for granted, such is his composure at the breakdown. Marmion also appears to have a very sound temperament and an X factor. At 22 he will assuredly only benefit from tours such as this, and it’s good to see a Connacht product breaking into the squad. It is due to that X factor that it is also encouraging to see Simon Zebo back into the frame. It is this unpredictability, in a collision-dominated game when defences are so hard to pierce, which has made such players even more invaluable, and Leinster are about to join Ireland in losing the man who had more X factor than any, Brian O’Driscoll.
In latter years the great one may not have had the searing acceleration to make those outside breaks and score from 30 metres-plus, but he had an uncanny knack for exploring and exploiting space in increasingly crowded pitches with his ability to draw players and put others away with his astonishing array of passes. You think of his pass to Zebo in Wales last season, that creative trio of assists against Italy this season and his one-handed, try-scoring offload out of a double tackle inside to Shane Jennings for the match-winning try in Ravenhill three weeks ago.
On Saturday Ian Madigan reminded us of his game-breaking abilities. Compared to where he was at this point a year ago, it’s disappointing his career has seemingly hit a road bump. Again, Schmidt has a perfectly valid point when stating Madigan hasn’t had enough game time. This season he has started 14 games, 13 of them at outhalf, and had 11 appearances off the bench, nearly all of which were in midfield. Ironically, given he was the de facto number two to Johnny Sexton, this compares with 25 starts and seven appearances off the bench last season, when the latter was troubled by injuries.
This also compares to Paddy Jackson’s 24 starts this season – all of them at outhalf including all seven of Ulster’s Heineken Cup games – and 20 starts at outhalf last season – including six of Ulster’s seven Heineken Cup games. For his part, Madigan started just two of his six Heineken Cup games this season. Ironically, he started seven of Leinster’s nine Euro ties last season.
Madigan appeared troubled by the preference for Jimmy Gopperth in Leinster’s opening two Euro matches, although he was the fulcrum of Leinster’s high point of their campaign, the 40-7 win away to Northampton. Game management issues returned in some Pro12 games – all of them derbies – which prompted Matt O’Connor to plump for Gopperth in Europe. So this is another setback in a season of ups and downs. But given his disappointment at being omitted from the starting line-up again last week, to respond by being a match-winner as a replacement inside centre was very impressive.
Like Madigan, disappointingly, Tommy O’Donnell’s star has fallen pretty dramatically since being omitted during the Six Nations and like Madigan he has suffered for being demoted from Munster’s starting line-up in big games. But like Madigan, O’Donnell has innate abilities and is quick, and hopefully like Madigan, he will have more game time with emerging Ireland in Romania than he would have had in Argentina. The hope remains Madigan and O’Donnell can make up lost ground by the time the World Cup comes around, because Ireland will be better for it.