Joe Schmidt happy for Ian Keatley to carry the load
Ireland coach says outlhalf has all-round game to lead unfamiliar Irish backline
Rather adept though he is at this coaching lark, sometimes you wonder why Joe Schmidt puts himself through it all. Nervous at the best of times, he now has the combination of a proverbial banana skin in tomorrow’s opener, a huge weight of expectation and the missing quartet of Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan and Johnny Sexton adding to his customary match-week apprehension.
That foursome will almost certainly be back in the frame for Ireland’s next game against France at the Aviva next week, but for the time being Schmidt has been obliged to select a side which is a tad more callow than normal, with four players making their first Six Nations’ starts at numbers eight, 10, 12 and 13.
Hence, on foot of starting Jordi Murphy, Ian Keatley, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne at this elevated level for the first time, it’s perhaps no wonder the Irish head coach has opted for the security that comes with experienced hands such as Mike Ross and Seán O’Brien.
“I know he was well underdone before the autumn and I thought he hung in really well against what is a very strong South African pack first up. The Georgians, it’s probably the one place they have more depth than anyone else, and Australia are very tricky to play in the front row.
“So he came through that. I do think that Marty Moore and Nathan White have done some really good work even in camp here, at the couple of scrum sessions we’ve managed to squeeze in. But for us, Mike has delivered in the past. He delivered last Six Nations and we’re hopeful he’ll deliver again.”
Schmidt acknowledged that several of the key performers in last season’s title charge were missing. “I think you have to be confident, confidence, to a degree, is contagious. If I show a lack of confidence in players, players are going to start questioning themselves . . . I’m very aware of the players who are missing and what they achieved last year. The player of the year in Andrew Trimble, the guy who broke the most tackles was Dave Kearney. Johnny [Sexton] scored the most points and the most tries as well.
“I’m confident, but always with a degree of trepidation about how Saturday comes out because I think the Italian players will be highly motivated. I think they’ve worked really hard to prepare well, but I think people underestimate the challenge that Italy will be.”
The inexperience of that aforementioned quartet also made Conor Murray’s presence “vital”, admitted the coach, not least in giving more time to his Munster half-back partner Ian Keatley, who has been working assiduously on certain areas of his game.
“His kicking game has been really sound. He is controlling games better. He’s nailing those clutch kicks and allowing the team that he’s playing for to get their nose in front at the right time or to get the right field position at the right time.
“He’s got a very capable passing game and I think his running game – you know, the first time I saw Ian Keatley play I think he was playing 12 or 13 for Connacht and the first thing he did was slice straight through our Leinster defence and Eoin O’Malley thankfully dragged him short of the line. I do think he’s got a running game that can threaten as well.”
Schmidt also conceded that he is looking for an improvement in Ireland’s setpiece and, when asked if Ireland would be more ambitious, said: “People have spoken a fair bit about style. I think in the last Six Nations we did score the most tries and we scored the most points. In the autumn, we still scored four tries against South Africa and Australia. If you’re doing that, then I think no matter which way you’re doing it, you’re cutting your cloth, and we tend to try to cut our cloth on a weekly basis.”
Another oddityhors de combat
Although he reported that Heaslip trained fully yesterday, and that Healy had three full sessions this week, Schmidt also maintained that this Irish selection was more a case of looking back at the evidence of the Wolfhounds game than with one eye on the French game, and that is borne out by several selections.
Italy coach Jacques Brunel, for his part, has stuck largely to the core of the team that ended a nine-match losing run at home to Samoa, before losing narrowly to Argentina and South Africa last November. Indeed, the entire backline from those three games are retained on block, with the New Zealand-born out-half Kelly Haimona making his first Six Nations start.
Nine of the starting 15 are home-based. Without Marco Bortolami, Quintin Geldenhuys, the Bergamascos and other familiar names though, the Azzurri are also a little more callow than normal. Half a dozen of the starting team have 15 caps or less.