By Phil Rice
The annual launch of the Six Nations campaign for the benefit of the media, recently took place in London. Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt openly admits to hating these occasions with each national coach trying to score psychological points.
This year proved no exception as England coach Eddie Jones, true to form, claimed ‘England have no hope’ of reclaiming their title. Schmidt warned his side not to be distracted by such comments.
“I know Eddie from old and I know he’s going to throw in the odd grenade, and fair play to him for doing it. It keeps us on our toes,” he said.
“I know Eddie’s excited about the people he’s got, he’s just not telling you that. It must be on the back of having 12 teams to select from and the eight days he’s had in camp as opposed to us having three.”
Schmidt showed he knows how to play the game by replying to Jones’s pessimism. He responded: We’ve got 13 players injured, missing some senior guys like Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne, pivotal to us the last time we won the Six Nations, and he’s only played once in the last year.
“You can always reflect on that, but you’ve got to focus on who you’ve got.” Italy coach Conor O’Shea demonstrated he’s learning how to counter the war of words, by deriding Jones’s ‘injury crisis’ and went on to name a fully fit, strong English XV that would be the envy of most countries in the world.
Battered and bruised
In truth, all six of the teams involved approach the tournament with multiple players missing through injury, and Schmidt has called on the organisers of the event to retain the two weeks of inaction between fixtures to allow vital breathers for battered and bruised bodies.
“I think the two fallow weeks are brilliant, they give you the ability to come up for air and keeps the tournament at the top of the tree,” said Schmidt. “People want to see the best players at their best.”
Schmidt was asked why one of the most impressive performers in the Pro14 this season, Tadhg Beirne, was not included in his squad.
Ex-Leinster academy player Beirne is currently playing for Scarlets, but will be returning to play for Munster next season. He has been shortlisted for the European Player of the Year on the back of some outstanding performances.
“I wouldn’t rule him out completely but it is complicated. We have camp weeks where he’d have to go back and be available for Scarlets,” said Schmidt.
“That intermittent involvement with the squad is one of the things that tipped the balance. It’s super that he’s coming back to Munster next year. I thought he was huge in Scarlets’ last two games.”
Schmidt insisted that Simon Zebo’s omission from the squad was based on form. “He didn’t have a great day in Paris against Racing a couple of weeks ago,” he explained. This unfortunately coincided with Schmidt finalising his squad.
Many observers believe that Zebo’s exclusion is due to his imminent move to France, but Schmidt says he hasn’t ruled out his involvement in the Six Nations, but it seems unlikely.
Regarding Leinster’s latest sensation, Jordan Larmour, Schmidt insisted that the 20-yearold is ready to contest selection.
He said: “The first time he was in camp was probably 16 months ago, it’s potentially a chance now to accelerate his progress into a match day squad and a starting XV.
“The most visible things are his ability to accelerate and change direction, but he’s skillful, effective in the air, good passing skills and commits to the physical as well. He’s a really good kid.”
A ringing endorsement indeed, that must have Rob Kearney wondering how secure his place is in the side. Schmidt believes that intense competition for places keeps the players on their toes and performing at their best.
Joe has been consistent with his selection policy, if players have been performing well for him he doesn’t interfere, unless an alternative has been playing outstandingly.
This might apply to the Larmour/ Kearney situation, however, experience of playing in the intense atmosphere in Paris will be invaluable and on that basis Kearney may get the vote.
Larmour may get his chance at home against Italy the following week. It is unlikely there will be any major surprises in selection. With Ringrose’s enforced absence the centre combination of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki picks itself and promises to be fascinating.
They played together successfully at Connacht in the past and with Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale in such good form, the Irish backline is looking potent.
Lady Luck always plays a part in the outcome of the Six Nations, just as it did in 2009, when Ireland last won the Grand Slam. They had a settled side and incurred very few injuries throughout that tournament.
The current injury list, including such players as O’Brien, Payne, Ringrose and Heaslip, is a setback but the unprecedented strength in depth in Irish rugby at present still permits the growing belief that this may be Ireland’s year.
With the 2019 World Cup on the horizon the timing couldn’t be better.