Gerry Thornley: Windows of opportunity closing for Schmidt

Players need Test match experience if they are to make it to Japan in two years’ time

Ireland in action against Fiji in last Saturday’s Guinness Series at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Ireland in action against Fiji in last Saturday’s Guinness Series at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Joey Carbery, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and James Ryan, to name but four, are amongst the new wave of players whom Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaches have clearly earmarked for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. The problem between now and then is affording them game time.

Ideally, a coaching ticket would like to bring a squad brimful of players in their mid- to late-20s, and some into their 30s, who have half a century of caps or more. But if that quartet, along with others of the match-day squads who were pitched into the summer tour and/or last Saturday’s game against Fiji, are to make it to Japan in under two years’ time, it will be impossible for any of them to fit that profile.

All told, a dozen of the 23 who featured against Fiji went into the game with five caps or less. The aforementioned quartet have only 14 caps combined and the windows for adding to that tally are few and far between.

When can Schmidt afford to play them again and give them badly needed experience in the Test match arena?

No defeat gnaws at him quite like that World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in Cardiff, and, allowing for how Los Pumas tactically outsmarted Ireland by working their way outside the Irish defence, much of the damage had been done in the bruising preceding pool decider against France.

Key front-liners

Even the All Blacks would struggle, if less than anyone else, had they lost a quintet of key front-liners as Ireland did in losing Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Seán O’Brien, Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne for that quarter-final.

They were replaced by Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry, Ian Madigan and, in effect, Keith Earls, who were hardly a batch of novices. Yet, most tellingly of all perhaps, of Madigan’s previous 24 caps, only five had been as the starting outhalf: against the USA, Canada, Georgia, a warm-up game against Scotland, and the pool win over Romania.

Recall, too, how even the All Blacks’ think-tank were so reluctant, somewhat understandably, to rest Dan Carter in his pomp in the four-year cycle between the 2003 and 2007 World Cup. By the time of their fateful quarter-final against France in the Millennium Stadium, Carter had started 30 of their previous 39 Tests at outhalf. When he went off injured in the 56th minute that night in Cardiff, he was replaced by Nick Evans, who had only won four of his 15 previous caps with the number 10 on his back: two on the 2006 end-of-year tour against Ireland and Scotland, one at home to France the following year, and their pool win in 2007 against Portugal.

Such was the All Blacks’ understandable desire to win what was then the Tri Nations and see off the Lions. This they did with Carter at the helm for all 14 Tri Nations games as they won three titles in a row and thrashed the Lions, with Carter only missing the third Test dead rubber after his vintage, 33-point performance in the second Test had memorably sealed the series in Wellington.    

Best foot forward

Similarly, Ireland will be compelled to put their best foot forward, not only in the next two Six Nations, but in signing off the Guinness Series in style against Argentina next Saturday. The Six Nations is not an experimental exercise for the World Cup. It is a stand-alone, prized tilt at a title in its own right. It is the main cash cow for Irish rugby, and the IRFU, the Irish supporters and media alike demand that Ireland are contenders.

At a push, and with no disrespect to the Italians, Schmidt and co may be tempted to give Carbery a start in that home game in round two. But, by and large, Ireland will want Johnny Sexton to stay healthy and, in his current form, thus be the tactical fulcrum of Ireland’s game throughout the tournament.

Similarly, it’s hard to see how Porter or Ryan can build up an extensive amount of game time in the Six Nations, although, with outside backs generally more developed physically for the demands of test rugby, Stockdale has all the attributes to become something of a fixture in the side over the next two seasons. Come the World Cup, hopefully, he will be well primed.

Between now and the World Cup warm-up matches in 2019, there remain only another 17 games, and 10 of those are accounted for in the Six Nations. Realistically, therefore, there is little scope to significantly build up the cap totals of the dozen players who had five caps or less going into last week’s game.

Three Test series

Aside from next Saturday’s game against Argentina and the 2018 and 2019 Six Nations, the only other windows of opportunity are the three Test series in Australia next June, and the Guinness Series in November of next year.

Perhaps, therefore, those windows provide some scope to take the kind of experimental approach adopted last week. Last week would have been very beneficial for the Irish coaching staff, not least given the pressure Fiji applied on a relatively callow home team. Yet a Test or two, or three, in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane against the Wallabies, would be altogether more searching tests, in every sense.

Could it be that Schmidt might rest some experienced if key front-liners such as Sexton and others like Devin Toner, so as to recharge their batteries and at the same time fast-track the development of players such as Carbery, Porter, Ryan and more? Sexton, if fit and well, would not be of a mind to miss out.  

Otherwise, it might be a struggle to have Carbery, Porter and Ryan go to the World Cup with even 10 caps to their names. Yet it looks like the most opportune time to do so – even if it would also be a ballsy thing to do.

 gthornley@irishtimes.com

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