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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 22 August, 2014

5 questions for Joe Schmidt as his first Six Nations campaign looms

We’ve outlined some of the issues facing the New Zealander as he prepares for kick-off on the 2nd of February.

Schmidt's Ireland side came close to beating the All Blacks in November.
Schmidt's Ireland side came close to beating the All Blacks in November.
Image: Mandatory Credit

Selection repetition or horses for courses?

This one is a matter of coaching philosophy and a question that posed some difficulty for the Kiwi during his time at Leinster. Does he select a first-choice XV and attempt to use that same team for all five of the Six Nations games or does he bring certain players in and out of the team depending on the opposition?

Having already spoken about creating depth in the squad as a priority, Schmidt may be leaning towards the latter. We are not speaking of wholesale changes from game to game, but rather a decision between Tommy O’Donnell’s extra ball-carrying power or Chris Henry’s breakdown expertise, for example.

At inside centre, Luke Marshall’s route one excellence and Gordon D’Arcy’s defensive experience offer different options. Winning momentum is seen as key in the Six Nations, and if Ireland beat Scotland in round one, will Schmidt feel obliged to stick with the same team?

What’s the pecking order at out-half?

Jonny Sexton remains the clear and obvious first-choice 10, but behind him are three players who will feel they have a strong chance of making the bench for the Six Nations. Ian Keatley is set to see game time for the Wolfhounds this weekend, but still looks an outside shot.

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Sexton is first-choice at number 10 for Ireland. ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne.

Paddy Jackson had a solid outing against Samoa in November, before Ian Madigan’s versatility and flair saw him preferred as back-up to Sexton for the Australia and All Blacks’ clashes. The Ulster man has continued to improve with his province ever since though, and his role as a Heineken Cup starter may have nudged him back ahead of Madigan.

It would be interesting to see how Jackson performed without Ruan Pienaar’s influence inside him, but is Schmidt willing to use a Six Nations encounter to find out? How much has Jimmy Gopperth’s form for Leinster harmed Madigan’s status as a Schmidt favourite?

How can we find consistency?

This is the overriding concern for the Irish national team over the coming seasons. The frustrating inconsistency of recent years must be remedied, as doing so will give Ireland the chance to compete for trophies. Schmidt will have his own ideas as to why consistency has eluded us, with the November Tests having perhaps provided with him with first-hand evidence.

While it would be demanding to expect the levels of performance Ireland attained for much of the game against the All Blacks as the norm, there must be a higher mean to revert to. Has it been a question of motivation for Ireland? Have the tactics and game plan not been clear enough?

Is Brian O’Driscoll the best option at 13?

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O’Driscoll remains a class act in midfield. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

As with every other player, the iconic centre has to earn his place in the first-choice XV. O’Driscoll’s form has not been at its best in recent weeks, but that is not to suggest that the 35-year-old is on an irreversible decline. Every player is susceptible to dips and peaks in performance levels; it appears the Leinster man has been dealing with the former.

His experience, defensive excellence and sheer creativity are almost always present in green though, meaning Schmidt would be confident of seeing O’Driscoll at his best this spring. Still, Darren Cave and Robbie Henshaw have both put their hands up strongly this season, with the Ulster man quite possibly the top-performing Irish outside centre in the Heineken Cup.

We would not leave O’Driscoll out of our team, but Cave and Henshaw are straining at the leash.

Is it time to blood Martin Moore?

The Leinster prop is in the midst of a mightily impressive season, one in which he has come from nowhere to being a genuine Heineken Cup starting option for the province. Still just 22, Moore has an incredibly strong frame that seems ideally built for excelling at scrum time. His contributions around the pitch have been increasing all the time too.

We would be the last to suggest that Mike Ross has not been an incredibly important player for both country and province, but the time for a genuine competitor at tighthead has arrived. Declan Fitzpatrick was good in fleeting November Test appearances, but his injury problems are a longer-term concern.

Moore looks to be the future, but is this the right time to give him his debut?

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