Joe Schmidt to decide for whom the bell tolls

Ireland coach will inform the provinces which players he’ll be releasing for Pro12 duty this weekend

Joe Schmidt discusses team selection ahead of Italy clash.

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 02:00

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will inform the four provinces, probably by tonight, of the players he’d like to see get game time in RaboDirect Pro12 fixtures this weekend.

The Irish squad will train in Belfast tomorrow and Thursday but the provincial managements will be forewarned in terms of player availability.

Given the seismic collisions during Ireland’s 13-10 defeat by England at Twickenham it’s a minor miracle that Brian O’Driscoll (calf) and Peter O’Mahony (hamstring) were the only players to grace the medical bulletin yesterday.

It read: “Peter has a hamstring strain. He will be monitored by the medical team over the course of the coming week. Brian had some calf cramping . . . and will be further assessed over the coming week. No other player sustained any injury of note.”

O’Mahony’s hamstring problem, while hopefully a minor concern that won’t threaten his participation against the Italians, will have sharpened the focus for a handful of flankers who’ll desperately want to play this weekend. One player’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.

Ulster’s Iain Henderson replaced O’Mahony during the match, but others like Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster) and Jordi Murphy, who won his first cap, when coming on as a replacement for Chris Henry would like the chance to make a statement on the pitch this weekend. Schmidt will decide what’s feasible in pursuit of the greater good for the national side.

When Murphy returns to the Leinster camp he’ll bring an energy and enthusiasm that accompanies his latest honour, something to which team-mate Shane Jennings referred when discussing Ireland’s latest debutant. “It’s fantastic. Hopefully, there’s many to come and, hopefully, he realises it is just the first. He’s not completed now. He knows that as well as everybody. He’ll have a big influence around the group this week.

“He’s got a chance and he’s taken it well . . . There’s lots of competition in that back row. Rhys [Ruddock] is there or thereabouts as well. Hopefully, he might get an opportunity. There is some good quality there.”

Debut international
So what does the first cap do for you as a player? Jennings smiled: “No one can take it away from you. Everybody has an influence on your career. But, I think that first cap is pretty special. He has worked very, very hard for it. There are a lot of people who’ve worked very, very hard for it whether it is his school, his club, his family. It is quite a sentimental thing.

“But, once you get your first one you want 10, you want 20, you want 50. He will be mad keen to get more and . . . The thing that has stood out, more so this season than anything else, is his ball carrying.

“He has been very good in some of the games earlier on this season. You need a ball carrier at number eight. He’s done that well for us. He’s gotten over the gain line. We’ll need it throughout the rest of the season. Hopefully, he’ll maintain it.”

It’s not just the backrow in which the competition for places on the national side is becoming increasingly fierce. Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster) and Donnacha Ryan (Munster) came through matches on return from injury, while Simon Zebo continued his try-scoring ways.

Italy were mugged 21-20 by Scotland in Rome, courtesy of a late drop goal from Duncan Weir. Italian coach Jacques Brunel lamented the quality, or lack thereof, concerning the performance on the day.

Italian low point
“Since I arrived, began to coach Italy, this is probably the worst game we’ve played. With our many mistakes and inaccuracies we have allowed the Scots to bring home the win. We lack the quality that a team with our ambitions should have.

“The quality of our game throughout was poor. At times we were strong in defence but we had far too many handling errors and lacked efficiency at the lineouts. Apart from the defence, we failed in most other departments.”

Brunel was adamant that he expected a reaction from his players, starting with the Ireland match. “We’ll see in good time how we’re going to approach those games . . . Our whole mission has been pushed back a step and we need to look at why and then try to see how we react.”

Italy will announce a squad for their final two matches against Ireland at the Aviva stadium on Saturday week and England seven days later at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome today. Italian team manager Luigi Troiani announced that there were no injury concerns arising from their defeat to Scotland.