The clock is ticking. With just twelve internationals to go before Ireland open their 2015 World Cup campaign against Canada next September, Joe Schmidt is fast running out of time in his quest to take this Ireland squad to the next level.
The forthcoming Guinness series is crucial in terms of addressing the pressing issues that hang over the make up of his first choice team. The Six Nations has never been a fertile breeding ground for experimentation given that the IRFU is always looking for the best financial return possible to bolster the coffers. In simple terms the higher up you finish in the Six Nations table, the more prize money is generated.
"By the time Ireland arrive at their pre tournament warm up games next August, Schmidt should have the vast majority of the 31 players allowed in the tournament squad selected with the exception of one or two either ors."
The most pressing issue surrounding the forthcoming series is deciding on a midfield combination now that Brian O Driscoll has completed the long goodbye. Given that his departure was flagged well over a year ago, it is a bit of a surprise that there is still uncertainty hanging over the midfield combination to take Ireland into the defence of their Six Nations title and beyond into the World Cup.
Schmidt is already on record that the No 13 shirt that had become the sole preserve of O Driscoll over the last fifteen years is a direct shootout between Robbie Henshaw and the newly Irish qualified New Zealander Jarred Payne.
Payne has assumed that role for Ulster this season but has failed to convince since his much publicised shift from full back. Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden were first to be offered the chance with each starting a test in the series win over Argentina last summer with neither grasping the opportunity. Cave has since lost his place to Payne in the Ulster set up and as a consequence his slot in the national squad has also gone west.
Schmidt should go west also and select Henshaw for the series opener against South Africa. If you want to find out if the young Connacht star is up to this level then put him in against the Springboks and Australia. He is having a great season for Connacht and in all probability would have started against Argentina over the summer but for injury.
The other option open to Schmidt is shifting the vastly experienced Gordon D'Arcy into the outside channel with Ian Madigan and Tommy Bowe also worth consideration. The fact that neither has played in that role this season to date makes that eventuality unlikely even if it warrants discussion within the management setup.
The other thing I will be looking for from the Autumn series is a discernible attacking pattern that has been somewhat lacking from the three Irish provinces in the Champions Cup. Schmidt forged his reputation as a backs coach with Auckland Blues and Clermont Auvergne and developed that even further during his highly successful reign at Leinster. With Jonny Sexton calling the shots from out half, Ireland will look be as creative as ever off set plays.
The biggest challenge facing Schmidt and his management team is the lack of preparatory time before the South African and the depth of his injury problems. With the physicality of the modern game ratcheting up another level this season, every international squad entering this November window is short a number of key front liners.
There was a time when the Southern Hemisphere sides came into this November campaign with their players severely lacking in game time. That has changed with Super 15 rugby now continuing into August - that tournament used to be done and dusted by May - and with the Rugby Championship extending into October.
As a consequence South Africa and Australia will be a more cohesive group than Ireland even if the Wallabies have experienced yet another change in head coach with the departure of Ewan McKenzie in controversial circumstances. Michael Cheika is the right man at the right time and will impose a different mindset on this talented group of Aussies. That makes them dangerous.
Schmidt must cherry pick the aspects of his game preparation that require most work in their limited time together. Much of that will focus on the set piece and the breakdown, areas that new forwards coach Simon Easterby will have a big influence on. However it will take time for him to find his feet at this level and he has big shoes to fill with the departed John Plumtree having a huge input into Ireland's Six Nations triumph last season.
In tangible terms I think Schmidt would be very happy with a return of two wins from this three test series. Ireland need the psychological boost of a victory over one of the big three from down under before the World Cup with Australia looking the more likely at present. That could prove easier said than done. Either way we will know a lot more about our strength in depth by the end of the month. Talk again soon.Back to Blog