Ireland Team Selection For Italy A Missed Opportunity

Conor Quinn

Conor Quinn

Conor is an Irish rugby fan and writer based in London.
Conor Quinn

There are always contentious calls, but the team announced on Thursday isn’t just debatable; it’s a missed opportunity.

Joe Schmidt has gone for a very conservative selection, keeping almost the full team that produced last week’s disappointing performance, with the exception of promoting Donnacha Ryan and rotating Healy for McGrath, and Gilroy for Bowe on the bench. In doing so, he has passed up the best – indeed, the only – opportunity of the tournament to build strength in depth and boost Ireland’s chances at the 2019 World Cup.

The coach seemed to feel that his hands were tied by last week’s result, in that he could no longer afford another slip-up and therefore couldn’t justify experimentation. But that argument is flawed on two grounds. Firstly, the Italy match would always have been crucial. It is not the case that, had we won in Murrayfield we could have afforded an off-day. For a side that aspires to win the championship, every game is crucial. The idea that the Italy game is now more crucial is nonsense. But the Scotland result has changed something: It is no longer enough to beat Italy; it is essential to get a bonus point in the process.

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The implication of this is that the team selection this week should have been attack-minded and forward-looking. The most obvious areas where these criteria would have played a role are in the back row and back three.

Rob Kearney has long been the fans’ favourite fall-guy: Schmidt values his supposed reliability, but he makes few line-breaks and scores fewer tries. Contrast with Tiernan O’Halloran, perhaps Ireland’s best player with ball in hand. He has scored and created dozens of tries for Connacht, and has acquitted himself well when given the chance at international level. But those chances have all but dried up. After scoring two tries against Canada in his third Test in November, O’Halloran dropped out of the squad for the subsequent New Zealand and Australia games and it now appears he won’t get another chance until the summer tour. And if he can’t get a run, what’s the hope for real outsiders like Adam Byrne to break into the team?

Equally in the back-row, Jamie Heaslip has been a wonderful servant to Irish rugby, and has far more form over the past two seasons than his Leinster colleague. He also plays a more important leadership role on the pitch, but had a poor game against Scotland and has played a lot of rugby this season. In the last 10 top-flight matches (three November internationals (excluding Canada), six Champions Cup games and last week’s fixture), Heaslip has played 780 out of 800 minutes. And yet he is sent out for another 80 against a poor but physical Italy team. So much for Ireland’s fabled player welfare management system

This is especially galling when Ireland are spoiled for quality players and combinations in the back row. Many suspect that Stander might be better deployed at number 8, and Jack Conan is tearing up trees for Leinster- and looks to be the most dynamic carrier in the country at the moment. The obvious solution was to rest Heaslip, play O’Brien at 6 and Van der Flier as a ‘proper’ 7, with Conan as the impact sub.

But instead we get the old soldiers marched out again for another gruelling, but ultimately safe fixture. Shame.