Joe Schmidt Should Take A Leaf Out Of Eddie Jones’ Book
Schmidt needs to leave some big names out of his November Internationals squad if he wants to build depth for Japan in 2019.
Joe Schmidt is the best coach Irish rugby has had in at least a generation. He has brought Ireland two Six Nations Championships, as well as victories over New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. He will likely go on to coach the All Blacks, the highest honour in his field.
But across the Irish Sea, another Antipodean coach is giving him a run for his money to be considered the best in the game. England’s revival under Eddie Jones is nothing short of astonishing. He changed the team culture overnight, adding confidence, ambition, and a ruthlessness that had been missing under Lancaster. And though Schmidt’s side triumphed in their last meeting, Jones has the better record: his England side have won 20 of their last 21 games, compared with 26 wins from 44 under Lancaster, and 32 out of 47 for Schmidt’s Ireland.
At a practical level, one of the things Jones has done particularly well is broadening the base of young international-level players with a view to the World Cup in Japan in 2019 – the tournament by which both he and Schmidt will ultimately be judged.
Schmidt has, to his credit, brought through a few young talents, most notably Tadgh Furlong and Garry Ringrose. But his progress in this area is magnified by the fact that Ireland were starting from such a low base. Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney very rarely dropped an established starter, and as a result Ireland have always had poor strength in depth.
This is a weakness that is exposed by the attritional nature of World Cups, as Schmidt found out to his cost in 2015, when the absence of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Johnny Sexton was more than Ireland could handle against Argentina. That loss highlighted the importance of building the player base, and Schmidt has since made a conspicuous effort to do so. Yet he could still learn a thing or two from the boldness with which Eddie Jones has shaken up England.
Last week Jones omitted three healthy Lions – Jonathan Joseph, James Haskell, and Kyle Sinckler – from his 33-man training squad ahead of the November internationals. In their place come the likes of 18 year old fly-half Marcus Smith and 19 year-old flanker Tom Curry, along with a host of players in their early-mid twenties who will be peaking in 2019.
By contrast, Ireland’s Cian Healy, Rory Best, Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney (that’s one third of a squad) will all be over 30 when the November internationals kick off this year. Most of them will be past their peak by the time Japan comes around.
I said at the start of this year that Ireland’s back three needed a shake-up and that it was a missed opportunity to stick with the likes of Kearney and Heaslip for the Italy game in the Six Nations. Thankfully Schmidt did use the summer tour of the USA and Japan to blood a handful of new players, including the promising-looking Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, and Rory O’Loughlin.
But those new players will need more than summer tour experience if they are going to compete in Japan, and Joe still needs to find a few new faces to give him the pool of 50-odd Test level players needed for a World Cup challenge.
The queue of new contenders includes returning Wild Geese Chris Farrell and JJ Hanrahan, project players like Bundee Aki, Tyler Bleyendaal, Jake Heenan and Tom McCartney, and a host of promising back three players who have been stymied by the longevity of Kearney, Earls, Trimble and Bowe.
Testing out some of these new options while continuing the development of recent additions to the squad will require some bold selection calls over the next 18 months, beginning this week. The Irish Lions players are back in the frame for selection, and Schmidt will be under pressure to deliver results in three tough tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina. It will not be easy for him to leave out established players in favour of developing potential.
But it’s no easier for his rival across the water. And if the experience of the last few World Cups are anything to go by, he could do with taking a leaf out of the Aussie’s book on this one.