Schmidt’s first panel will have a bolter - Max Deegan perhaps
Hard to read Ireland coach’s mind as he prepares to choose squad against Springboks
Munster’s CJ Stander and Jack Conan of Leinster battle for the ball. They could also be battling for Ireland number 8 shirt. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Can anyone read Joe Schmidt’s mind before the wounded Springboks come to Dublin on November 11th?
Help is at hand. Leinster and Munster crossing paths at the Aviva stadium on Saturday provides value above and beyond each team’s seasonal aspirations.
It’s the backrow battle, you see, those hulks who covet ball the moment it touches muck, each quietly desperate to turn one man’s head.
Usual story: too much talent, too few positions. Schmidt’s replacement flanker has consistently proved the most difficult name to predict.
The Ireland coach certainly spreads the load. Since out-manoeuvring New Zealand on that momentous November day in Soldier Field, the 52-year-old has used six different flankers – Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Jack O’Donoghue and Sean Reidy – off his bench.
Conan v Stander provides a delicious subplot this Saturday. The 25-year-old St Gerard’s outlier has three inches on his South African rival, with available statistics stating both men are carved from 18 stone of granite.
In June Conan skittled flimsy US and Japanese defenders aside, just as Stander dug foxholes across New Zealand, biding his time as an unused sub in the second Lions test, before ably replacing the injured Seán O’Brien at half-time a week later.
Saturday’s collision stats should prove educational; Conan’s off-the-ball work rate has improved while Stander’s is always exemplary.
The numbers, post match, could demand that both men start for Ireland next month.
Stander has been ever-present in Schmidt teams since the 2016 Six Nations but Heaslip’s consistent excellence meant he was used as a blindside, largely at the expense of Peter O’Mahony. The only run at number eight came when Heaslip was replaced during the warm-up before England last March.
Stander’s nine test match appearances, eight for Ireland, totalling 603 minutes of pitch time since Chicago, is topped by one man.
Seán O’Brien remains the alpha backrow, even considering he has played more for Ireland than Leinster these past 12 months (690 minutes against 546 minutes which includes last Friday’s hour of cobweb removal).
After being overlooked for the Chicago trip, when the Ireland coach coolly left both O’Brien and O’Mahony at home, the Tullow Tank has started 10 of a possible 11 (excluding Canada) test matches.
O’Brien has worn Leinster blue just nine times since his delayed start to last season against Montpellier on October 23rd. In fact, he only finished one game for them, against Zebre in January, before injury curtailed all remaining pitch time to 67 minutes against Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter-final last April.
Durability, while clearly an issue for O’Brien, was not a problem in his stunning 80-minute performance against the All Blacks in last November’s brutal 21-9 loss. Come the Six Nations he made way for van der Flier twice, O’Mahony against France and Leavy against England.
He went the full 80 in another vicious encounter in Cardiff, when Ireland lost 22-9 to Wales, before some epic performances during the summer secured his legendary status and prompted him to speak his mind.
The numbers rarely lie: when O’Brien is fit, O’Brien stays on the pitch.
So, Stander, O’Brien and Conan to stare down the Springboks?
Some obvious problems. Peter O’Mahony put manners on England last March and is set to be named Ireland captain in the coming weeks, while Schmidt consistently returns to van der Flier either off the bench or as his openside, and Rhys Ruddock’s uncompromising tour leadership cannot be entirely discarded.
Also, Iain Henderson needs a home in the starting XV. Ulster, who played him at lock against Zebre, may continue to get full value from him at blindside, but his conversion to a fully fledged international lock is all but complete (see the try-scoring display against England when Devin Toner was dropped and Henderson called the lineout).
Now that Tadhg Beirne’s switch from Scarlets to Munster is confirmed, the Kildare man could be fast-tracked into the national set-up, but it’s more likely that Henderson will fill the void created by Donnacha Ryan’s move to Paris. Henderson replaced Ryan/Ultan Dillane/Toner on five occasions last season and he started at lock twice during the Six Nations. James Ryan, Kieran Treadwell and Quinn Roux all showed well in the summer but Henderson was sensational for the Lions’ midweek side.
There will be a bolter in Schmidt’s first panel. Max Deegan perhaps.
But, even with Heaslip and Leavy crocked, there isn’t room for them all.
A trial match of sorts can only help.