Hugh Farrelly Aviva Rugby Blogger

HUGE CALL AT NO 9 BUT TRUST IN JOE

Hugh Farrelly
Aviva Rugby Writer
1 Sep 2015

SO, last week's stab at the World Cup squad wasn't too far off the mark.

One player out, to be precise, as we didn't anticipate Darren Cave making it - not because the Ulster centre is a bad player, not at all, but because bringing him required the considerable gamble of travelling with only two specialist No 9s.

That is the major debating point from this 31-man selection, the others being the omission of Andrew Trimble and inclusion of Tadgh Furlong, who assumes the late-late bolter tag Conor Murray donned four years ago.

There has been a fair degree of surprise and, in some cases, outrage at the decision to leave Trimble behind but both reactions are misplaced.

Firstly, there can be no questioning the regard Joe Schmidt holds for Trimble, a winger who responded to the faith shown in him last year by unearthing the finest form of his international career.

Unfortunately, injury then intervened and, despite doing well against Wales a few weeks ago after returning from extensive rehab, another niggle picked up that day in Cardiff appears to have compromised Trimble's chances - which must have been an incredibly difficult call for Schmidt.

However, when it comes to plotting paths to success, the New Zealander is not a man to be swayed by sentiment and the bottom line, as Schmidt suggested last week, was that Trimble had simply missed too much rugby.

Less high profile exclusions in the three-quarters were Felix Jones and Fergus McFadden but both are worthy of mention. Last season, it appeared as though Schmidt was carrying a Felix Jones loyalty card in his wallet as he stuck with the Munster full-back in his match-day 23 throughout Ireland's successful Six Nations Championship run.

Jones is a fine player, and highly respected for his application and positivity around the squad, but his persistent presence last season was a puzzle in that Keith Earls and Luke FItzgerald seemed to offer more from the bench.

Both those players make it this time and, with SImon Zebo also included, there is plenty of attacking gumption in the party, complementing the efficiency of Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney.

McFadden can be forgiven for looking a tad wistfully at Cave's name in the squad. When McFadden was coming through with Leinster in the late 2000s, he featured regularly, and consistently excelled, in the No12 jersey.

However, with Gordon D'Arcy proving hard to shift, McFadden became pigeon-holed as a combative winger, playing at 13 when he did occasionally feature at centre.

Now, Cave is in the squad to cover for Robbie Henshaw at 12, a role McFadden could have taken on, while adding to the back three options, if he had received greater recent exposure in what he is on the record as claiming to be his best position.

Furlong's rapid rise from Leinster fringe player to Ireland's World Cup squad has been remarkable. It is fitting that the 22-year-old hails from New Ross as he is cut from the same cloth as Ireland's first choice tighthead, which immediately wins him favour with Schmidt and scrum coach Greg Feek, and he will contest the back-up tighthead role with Nathan White.

People were blindsided by this call, expecting Martin Moore or Michael Bent to get the nod instead, but, once Furlong was included in the 23 to face Wales last weekend, the only conclusion was that he was right in the mix, especially with Moore battling injury.

With Healy still a doubt, there is a risk to taking just one back-up loosehead (with Furlong available for emergency cover) but, as we said last week, there was no point bringing Bent purely on the basis of versatility - there is little value being able to cover loosehead and tighthead if you are found wanting in both positions.

And so to the major gamble in this squad selection: two scrum-halves.

When this possibility began to get some airplay at the start of last week, it seemed nothing more than an interesting flyer after a weekend with no warm-up match to analyse. Perhaps the decision of Michael Cheika, Schmidt's predecessor at Leinster, to only bring two established No9s played a role but Australia have Matt Giteau, a player who has filled in scrum-half at the top level before, Ireland have Ian Madigan, who may look physically suited to the traditional requirements of the position but has no frontline experience.

Here is the six-step nightmare scenario.

1) Following comprehensive wins over Canada and Romania, Schmidt selects his strongest side to face Italy as he seeks a powerful launchpad for the World Cup-defining pool showdown with France a week later.

2) During the course of a bruising but comfortable victory over the Italians, first-choice scrum-half Conor Murray picks up an injury and is ruled out for 10 days, forcing him to miss the France game.

3) Ireland do not want to call for a replacement as that would rule one of their best players out of the tournament and they need Murray if they are to reach their stated goal of a first semi-final.

4) Ireland start Eoin Reddan at No9 against France with Madigan as back-up.

5) Reddan gets an injury after 10 minutes and, with Madigan out of his depth in the unfamiliar role, Ireland lose to the jubilant French.

6) Ireland, second in their pool, get the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.
Hopefully, it will not come to that but not bringing a third specialist scrum-half creates this possibility and it is truly a massive call by Schmidt.

But, that is why Schmidt is where he is and, break it all down, and we are left with two critical questions: Is this squad good enough to reach the last four and do we trust Joe Schmidt's judgement?

The answer to both is an unequivocal yes - not a bad place to start your World Cup campaign.

 

By Hugh Farrelly, Irish Daily Mail rugby columnist

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