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Dublin: 11 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Opinion: Schmidt selection criticism unwarranted and short-sighted

Conor Murray is Ireland’s best scrum-half, that doesn’t mean he should start and finish every single game.

Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

“If you haven’t got a selection headache, then you’re going to be at the mercy of injuries. Come World Cup time you’ve gotta have two, ideally three, players you can rely on in every position.”

THE ABOVE ARE the words of Australia coach Ewen McKenzie.

He was speaking yesterday, but not in any sort of contrived defence of the man he’s trying to out-think this weekend. He was talking about his own job and defending the selections in his own pack.

Within minutes of Joe Schmidt naming his second ever international team, blood was boiling in Ireland. The Kiwi, a Leinster man of course, had dropped the Lions scrum-half in favour of wee Eoin Reddan. What was he thinking?

The fact that the same coach also dropped man-of-the-match, Jack McGrath, Paddy Jackson, Gordon D’Arcy, Mike McCarthy and two-try debutant Dave Kearney didn’t really register as strongly. Schmidt is showing his Leinster bias by replacing a Munster man with a former Munster man.

Okay, so Reddan’s time with Leinster has made him as blue blooded as Mike Ross or Isaac Boss, but handing him the number nine jersey for tomorrow’s Test against Australia isn’t about rewarding those who have delivered European medals to Leinster. It is about rewarding Reddan for making an impact from the bench against Samoa and signalling to the squad that even Lions are not immune to being dropped. We all cry out for form selections, now it’s happening.

Same old winners

With this team selection Schmidt is showing that competition for places doesn’t always have to end with the same winners over and over again. By keeping the watching public guessing on his weekly selections, he also keeps the players guessing thereby goading them into better performances on a day to day basis. Perform better in training, and that level of form carries into match-day.

This should not be taken as a criticism of Munster fans, everybody with a provincial leaning will be guilty at some point. It is simply Munster who have been ‘wronged’ on this occasion.

Since leaving the head coach role himself, Eddie O’Sullivan has spoken openly about the immense pressure that comes down upon a coach during this month of cash cow November Internationals. O’Sullivan says that he was given a must-win directive that made a experimentation a no go area.

When there is no such thing as squad rotation, there is only the ability to be sensationally ‘dropped’ and because unchanged teams (where possible) became the norm, being cut from the team for a one off fixture became a personal insult of the highest order.

It didn’t have to be that way.

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Schmidt has hopefully been able to ask for reduced interference from the blazers before agreeing to take this job. In any case, he has started off by keeping everyone on their toes. Healy, O’Connell and O’Brien on the bench against Samoa, Robbie Henshaw catapulted back into the 23 this week and you can be sure we would be seeing more variety in the back three if that area wasn’t so heavily hit by injury.

Yesterday, while McKenzie was making his own plans in Dublin, Schmidt was in Maynooth saying pretty much the same thing: “One of the things I feel we have to do is have 30, 35 players with the ability to play international rugby.”

With Leinster, Schmidt would often point to the 50 or so players that he had selected over the course of a season. It was no accident. From early on in his tenure, he had made it clear by his team selection that he would reach down the depth chart of players to pull everybody up. Now, he is simply attempting to do the same thing under a microscope and with fewer games, fewer caps to go around.

Will it work? Maybe, maybe not in the short-term. Long term – we’re  inclined to trust the men who combined stylish rugby with the substance to win a pocket full of medals.

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