Rugby World Cup: Five tough calls for Joe Schmidt

Henderson the Godsend; Joe’s not showing his hand; unlucky Luke; Chris edging Jordi; The final cut

Ireland flanker Jordi Murphy had a tough day against the outstanding Justin Tipuric of Wales during the World Cup warm-up at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

Ireland flanker Jordi Murphy had a tough day against the outstanding Justin Tipuric of Wales during the World Cup warm-up at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Iain Henderson or Devin Toner?

It’s not really a tough call anymore. The second best forward in Ireland these past six months, this 23-year-old Craigavon native is Ireland’s soft landing when Paul O’Connell moves to Toulon.

In the past two years Toner has grown into himself and become a genuine Test lock but Henderson’s performance here, particularly at the breakdown, makes him essential from kick-off against France.

Donnacha Ryan off the bench would compensate for losing Henderson’s late impact. All told, that spells bad news for Toner. What you lose in the lineout you gain in all other areas. And anyway, O’Connell will still run a decent set piece. Henderson could feature at blindside flanker against England next Saturday. Just to keep everyone on their toes. Either way, he’s a Godsend.

The best Irish forward? Still Jamie Heaslip.

To play or not to play?

“I don’t think Ireland play a lot of rugby,” said Warren Gatland but Schmidt and Johnny Sexton seemed content to fold all day. They purposely showed nothing new to Wales, reverting to halfback kicking with close-in carry after carry into Shaun Edwards’s well constructed red brick wall. If we didn’t know them better we would call it naive.

But we do: Ireland are obviously letting the blinds rise until they see the flop in Cardiff on October 11th. This simplistic, effective approach will remain while Schmidt concocts some magic plays behind closed doors.

At one stage television popped up an Ireland stat, offloads: zero.

They have what they hold.

“I’m sure they are very much like us,” said Warren Gatland. “We haven’t brought everything to the table yet. Haven’t shown things, we are keeping things behind for the next few weeks because there is so much analysis going on, if we showed everything we are going to do it is not going to be a surprise for that first big game which is going to be England in Twickenham.”

Maybe Schmidt will unleash some new plays at the World Cup final venue next Saturday. Just to see if they work under pressure.

Luke Fitzgerald

Would you risk the ridiculously talented Blackrock winger cum centre in your matchday 23 against France? Injured since November 2009 – two cruciate ruptures, hip, abductor; last year his entire body was so crocked they had a bed for him in Santry rehabilitation clinic – the flashes of brilliance remain a compelling argument to carry Fitzgerald to the World Cup.

Keith Earls’s injury certainly helps his cause but he’s the type of risk Schmidt tends not to take. Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble – try scorers for Ulster in Edinburgh on Friday night – are the winners here. It remains a tough call but it’s worth harking back to Schmidt’s words last Thursday: “I know that when we name our 31 some people will say ‘it’s unbelievable, how could he leave this guy or that guy out?’

“And the one thing I challenge them to do is to look at as much footage, to have had as much discussion with the players that I have, have watched the amount of training that I have and the coaching staff as a group have.

“That’s probably the privileged position that you’re put in, the access to more of the information than anyone else and then you take the risks. Then the imperfection of the 31 is the risk and there’ll be hindsight and in hindsight someone potentially will be able to stand up and say, ‘they got that wrong’.

“Or probably because I’m the one who’s going to be announcing it, it’ll be ‘he got that wrong’ and I’ve got to put my hand up then if we do get something wrong. I’ve got my fingers crossed.”

The trust placed in him by the IRFU, the players and the supporters to make those risky decisions has been repaid every time since the 49-year-old arrived in the summer of 2010.

Chris Henry or Jordi Murphy?

Again, like his Ulster wingers, Henry appears to have profited by sitting still. Murphy was devoured by Justin Tipuric. The 26-year-old jackal is heaping tremendous pressure on Lions captain Sam Warburton to keep the Wales number seven jersey. Murphy is an established Schmidt favourite as he covers all three backrow slots but Henry, a natural openside, looks to have glided onto the bench for when it really matters. Probably. Who plays in Twickenham will be interesting.

The alternative is to keep Dev Toner at lock while carrying Donnacha Ryan and Iain Henderson on the bench because one thing the Welsh reinforced is that size will matter more than anything else at this World Cup.

The final cut

The waters have been muddied. Certainties to make the 31 man squad (which will surely leak Sunday night) are: Paul O’Connell, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Seán Cronin, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, Rob Kearney.

Dave Kearney is close to that. As is Donnacha Ryan, Tommy Bowe and Richardt Strauss (the hooker rolled his ankle). Marty Moore must prove his fitness to edge out Nathan White (who Schmidt exonerated of any blame for the two scrum penalties).

The rest are really tough calls. Kieran Marmion or Isaac Boss or the Michael Cheika approach of bringing two scrumhalves to free up space for Darren Cave or Gordon D’Arcy. Probably not. Cian Healy goes unless disaster strikes in the next 24 hours so that leaves Dave Kilcoyne in a straight fight with Michael Bent. Kilcoyne is the better player.

Keith Earls (concussion) and Luke Fitzgerald (glute problem) means Schmidt must reassess his best laid plans when he drifted off to sleep Friday night. Hope for Andrew Trimble and Bowe. D’Arcy and Cave as well.

Earls and Fitzgerald, both aged 27, should have well over 100 plus caps between them. They have 70 because they have been crocked more often than not. And are again. They should be recognised as world class by now. It’s a huge gamble to bring them both.

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