THERE WERE NEVER likely to be wholesale switches for Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Italy, but there is a sense that Joe Schmidt has missed an opportunity by not making more than one change to his starting team.
The Kiwi has previously spoken about his intention to build a squad of 30 to 35 players with Test match experience, with the goal of “trying to grow the group a little bit so we have competition within the squad.”
Based on those sentiments, one would have expected this home tie against Italy as presenting the perfect opportunity to put the idea into action. Not to suggest that Schmidt would ever have thought about making seven or eight changes, but there was certainly scope for starting Martin Moore and Paddy Jackson, at least.
The argument is likely to be brushed aside in the aftermath of a strong win for Ireland on Saturday, but being so result-focused would be to ignore the potential long-term benefits of having given Moore and Jackson the chance to start against Italy.
Schmidt pointed out this afternoon that his team selection “reflects the respect we have for Italy,” but what about the respect he needs to show the likes of Moore, who has done all he can to earn a chance to start? This was a clear chance to grow the competition with Mike Ross at tighthead prop.
Throwing young players into international Tests for the sake of it is not what coaches should do, but Moore and Jackson have given all the signs of growth they possibly could have this season. The Leinster man has been excelling in the scrum, while Jackson has demonstrated composure in Ulster’s bigger games.
It became clearer early this week that there was unlikely to be more than one partly-enforced change to the team, but it is still something of a surprise that Schmidt has gone for the same again, particularly given those assertions that he would look to increase the experience of the squad as a whole.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
With two games left to go, Ireland are in with a strong chance of claiming this year’s Six Nations title and clearly Schimdt is not willing to take any minor risk that could spoil that opportunity. However, making two or three other changes to his team this weekend would not have been a gamble because several of the back-up players are ready.
Ireland are focused on ensuring as handsome a win as possible, particularly given that the championship could be decided on points difference, but again it’s difficult to see how giving two other players their first starts of this year’s competition would have affected that objective.
Schmidt could not have known that Italy would be without the talismanic Sergio Parisse, whose absence is a strong indicator that Italy have targeted their home clash with England as the more winnable fixture of this final Six Nations block.
The Stade Français No. 8 means more to Jacques Brunel’s men than his sheer effectiveness in attack; he is a motivator, an example to follow and an indicator of when Italy are ready to go the distance. Parisse’s absence is a major blow for the visitors.
Long-term, it will be virtually impossible to quantify or qualify exactly what Ireland have missed out on by not giving the likes of Moore and Jackson a start in this game. Hindsight after what looks like being a third Six Nations win for Ireland will allow us to say that Schmidt was right not to mix up his team selection.
It appears we will have to wait until the summer tour of Argentina to see the real evidence of Schmidt’s intention to grow his group of tested players. For now, there is a championship to be won.