WITH THE ABSENCE of a number of (but not all) experienced big-name players in the Ireland squad to tour Argentina, Joe Schmidt has clearly had a difficult task to balance the needs of individuals with the overarching goal of continuing Ireland’s winning momentum.
On top of the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll, Schmidt has omitted Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Gordon D’Arcy and Tommy Bowe in order to give them a chance to recover fully from injury troubles.
“There are a bunch of guys who we would feel are better served by getting a window to fully recover,” Schmidt said at today’s squad announcement.
“Also, a number of them will have accumulated a number of very brief pre-seasons by the time they go away on June tours, Lions tours and the like.”
That reasoning doesn’t apply to Racing Metro’s Jonathan Sexton, who is included at the expense of his former back-up, Ian Madigan, with three scrum-halves also scuppering the Leinster utility back’s chances this time around.
“To only take two scrum halves would be very, very difficult,” says the Six Nations-winning coach.
“To go with six halves would have been a real tightening of numbers. The thing for Ian is he hasn’t had a lot of game time recently. I have had a really good discussion with him.
“He is going to come in and train with us, but he will go on the emerging tour and will give him and the likes of Ian Keatley time to get game time over there. We will still be keeping a close eye on that group.”
That emerging squad will be coached by Neil Doak and Dan McFarland in the IRB Nations Cup in Romania with the hosts providing the opposition in between games against Russia and Uruguay.
The full squad for that shadow tour is expected within the next week. But Schmidt has already eyed up his potential standby players, with Craig Gilroy (“finding form and footwork again”) and Tommy O’Donnell among the group invited to Dublin for today’s 24-hour re-introduction to the international scene and leading contenders for a late call-up along with Madigan.
With only three recognised second rows selected, and Robbie Diack providing a fourth option, Schmidt is also likely to hand a late call to Mike McCarthy provided he comes through the Pro12 final unscathed.
Along with managing those medical concerns, this tour provides Schmidt with this first true opportunity to work to a long-term goal of increasing Ireland’s strength in depth.
“To build a bit depth and competition for those places,” said the Kiwi when asked about his overriding goals for the Tests on June 7 and 14, “to give players an opportunity to demonstrate that they’re at a level. Because any time you go to Argentina it’s going to be combative.
“I’d like to think that the team can perform well and keep some continuity and consistency going on from the Six Nations. I felt that we finished in November last year with that performance against the All Blacks, not quite getting over the line, but then I felt we were very consistent in the Six Nations.
“Even though we didn’t quite beat England in the Six Nations – they’re a super team and that’s a very big test to do that – we worked our way through that very well and the challenge for the group is to maintain a consistent high level performance – that would be the primary thing.”