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Schmidt's one big selection headache

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Joe Schmidt is yet to make up his mind on one key area

Predictable is a word that has been thrown at Ireland a lot over the past few months.

It is no secret that Ireland teams tend to play a certain way, and under Joe Schmidt that has generally served them well.

Ireland like to go through the phases, with many of their tries coming off the back of well rehearsed set plays. 

As pointed out by Warren Gatland recently, Ireland rarely tend to mix up their approach, and unless Schmidt has something special up his sleeve, we will see more of the same in Japan.

Yet it is not just Ireland’s approach which has become predicable. For the most part, the starting XV is nailed on, and has been for some time now. 

It has not been a vintage season for Ireland, but outside of some injury-enforced changes, there will no be major selection surprises in Schmidt’s starting XV come the Pool A opener against Scotland on Sunday. Even those players who have suffered a particularly bad dip in form, such as captain Rory Best, will be trusted to deliver. 

The only area of Schmidt’s starting team where there is genuine uncertainty is the back-row.

In fact, Schmidt hasn’t been settled on his back-row for over a year. The last time he picked the same back-row combination for successive games was March 2018.

Over the course of Ireland’s four warm-up games it was the one area where the New Zealander looked to be really experimenting.

Not only did Schmidt experiment with the personnel in his back-row, he also moved some of his most trusted lieutenants to less familiar surroundings. 

In their World Cup warm-up game against Wales in Cardiff, Schmidt started Peter O’Mahony at openside. The following week, the Ireland head coach played CJ Stander at No 6.

It is possible that Schmidt is just future-proofing in case injury hits his squad again. At the 2015 World Cup, Ireland crashed out in the quarter-finals against Argentina with Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell and Jared Payne all sidelined, along with the suspended Sean O’Brien.

Yet there is also a feeling that Schmidt is unsure what his best back-row combination is, as it the one area of his squad that has been heavily disrupted by injuries.

Schmidt lost Leinster flanker Dan Leavy to a horrific knee injury in April. The 25 year old has been a regular starter for Ireland, and had he stayed fit, would likely have worn the No 7 shirt against Scotland next Sunday. 

Schmidt has also had to plan for the tournament without Sean O’Brien, who underwent hip surgery at the end of Leinster’s Pro14 winning campaign. While not the ball-carrying destructive force of old, O’Brien still remained part of Schmidt’s plans before injury forced his hand. Just two years ago, O’Brien was the outstanding performer for the British and Irish Lions in their 24-21 defeat of New Zealand. 

Jordi Murphy is another player who has caused the All Blacks problems in the past, but misses out on this squad despite always delivering for Ireland.

Of those that did make the plane to Japan, none can be certain of their place in Schmidt’s first choice XV. 

As it stands, Schmidt is expected to field a back-row consisting of O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, and Stander on Sunday.

But even stalwarts like O’Mahony and Stander have come under scrutiny this season.

Stander’s place in the Ireland team has been up for debate for some time now. Like O’Brien, his ball carrying abilities have failed to hit the heights of old. Leinster’s Jack Conan offers a more dynamic threat in the No 8 jersey. Yet while Conan has consistently delivered for Leinster, there is a feeling Schmidt isn’t fully convinced of his abilities.

If Stander is at anything but his battering-ram best in Japan, the calls to include Conan will only increase. Conan is certain to start at least one of Ireland’s pool games, and will aim to use the occasion as a platform to force his way into the team for the bigger tests that lay down the line.

O’Mahony’s place is more secure, if not quite guaranteed. Like many of his teammates, the Munster captain struggled for form throughout the season. He was part of the back-row that was bullied by England in March, and also played in August’s thrashing at Twickenham.

It would be a major surprise if Schmidt were to drop O’Mahony, with his leadership particularly important, but there are enough rivals snipping at his heels to keep him under pressure, and there is certainly a possibility of him being shifted to openside to allow someone else step into the No 6 shirt.

Van der Flier is probably the most at risk of the three. While he has performed well for Ireland, he lacks the level of physicality and brute force that will be needed in a potential quarter-final against New Zealand or South Africa.

Rhys Ruddock will be pushing for inclusion, while Schmidt can also call on Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne. 

Henderson is widely expected to parter James Ryan in the second-row, but the Ulster player can comfortably slot into the back-row should Schmidt look to change things around. Beirne is well used to switching between the second-row and back-row, and Schmidt outlined that versatility as key to his inclusion, while he also brings huge presence to the lineout.

Ruddock made the cut on the back of another fine season with Leinster, and is clearly highly regarded by Schmidt given how often he has captained his country.

It all adds up to what promises to be the most hotly contested area of Ireland’s squad.

We can safely assume what back-row combination will start against Scotland on Sunday. Schmidt’s record suggests that selection will be broken up before the end of Ireland’s campaign.

 The Rugby Pod discuss Ireland’s World Cup squad

 

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Joe Schmidt is yet to make up his mind on one key area