THE 42-MAN SQUAD named by Joe Schmidt earlier this week assembled for a short camp at Carton house yesterday.
On the agenda will be preparation for the November internationals, much of it ‘classroom work’ where Schmidt will introduce the basic structures he wants his Ireland team to use.
Taken on face value, this squad is almost identical to what we would have expected Declan Kidney to name. The new Joe Schmidt era was supposed to be about change surely, about a storm of fresh air blowing through the national set-up? Instead, we’ve been handed a squad that nearly everyone could have predicted.
However, Schmidt’s job is not to overhaul the playing personnel. While any international coach has a responsibility to plan for the future and leave his country in decent shape as older players retire, Schmidt’s number one priority is to win games immediately.
Ireland’s problem for the last number of years has not been the quality of player being selected, but rather the manner in which the team has been set up and motivated. We have never been short of excellent players. The Heineken Cup successes of Munster and Leinster are the only proof needed to back that up.
The likes of Sexton, Best, O’Brien, O’Connell, and O’Driscoll are as good as anyone else in their position in Europe, but they simply haven’t been used in the right way consistently. That’s exactly what the Joe Schmidt era is about: a change in game plan, a change in attitude and ensuring we get the best from our undoubtedly talented players.
It’s simply too early to make any judgement on Schmidt’s impact, whatever the squabbles may be over one or two of the selections in this extended squad. The two-day camp is the first chance he has had to put his masterplan into action. The performances in November will be the first true measure by which we can judge the new coach.
While Schmidt has largely gone with what he calls the “tried and proven”, there are a few new faces to get excited about, none more so than loose head prop Jack McGrath. The much-criticised Tom Court drops out of contention to make space, and Ireland suddenly appear to be developing genuine competition for Cian Healy on the left-hand side of the front row.
Kilcoyne is one of three excellent options at loose head. ©INPHO/Giuseppe Fama
Dave Kilcoyne was a revelation for Munster last season and, with eight caps to his name already, would certainly consider himself second-choice behind Healy. McGrath’s presence at Carton House this weekend may cause him a slight sense of unrest though. The Leinster man’s reputation grows with every muscular performance, and Matt O’Connor is a big fan.
Competition in the propping positions has been highly desirable since the infamous Twickenham debacle of 2012, but it is at tight head that Ireland remain anxious. Mike Ross has been flogged in the past two seasons, playing almost every possible minute for his country. A simple lack of viable alternatives is the main reason for that.
Schmidt’s first squad as Ireland coach features Stephen Archer of Munster and Declan Fitzpatrick of Ulster as back-up to Ross, and it may be a case of throwing one of them into the starting team against Samoa or Australia. The Wallabies have a desperately poor scrum, and that fixture represents a chance for Schmidt to let Ross rest up.
The inclusion of Niall Morris is also encouraging for the growing numbers of young Irish players considering moves abroad. While the wing/fullback won’t have much of an opportunity to impress this weekend, it is certainly promising to be included in a camp that will revolve around putting in place longer-term structures. The former Leinster man is sure to be involved at some stage down the line.
At this short overnight camp, there won’t be too much commotion out of Carton House, but in the meeting rooms and out on the training pitch the first steps towards a reinvigorated Irish rugby team will be taken. Setting off in the right direction is vital, something Schmidt is fully aware of.