The Three Biggest Decisions Joe Schmidt Has To Make Next Season

World Cup year.

Ireland have had an incredible season by all accounts. A clean sweep in November, Six Nations Grand Slam and series win in Australia – not a bad list of accolades if you ask me.

But let’s be honest with ourselves, the Rugby World Cup is the ultimate goal. It’s the Holy Grail, and the pinnacle of rugby for any Test side. For Ireland, they’ve never gotten past the quarter final stage – something head coach Joe Schmidt will no doubt want to rectify.

With next year being a Rugby World Cup year, Schmidt will probably look to lock in a preliminary squad as early as November. No need to shuffle things too much next season. We probably won’t see too many new caps.

He’s done a superb job over the last three years bringing guys through and has assembled a very good squad of around 40 players who can all step up at any given moment. While Schmidt or the Irish players will probably never really admit it – they’ll fancy themselves in Japan next year, and why the bloody hell wouldn’t they?

But as far as we’re concerned – Schmidt has three really big decisions to make next season that will be pivotal on the road to Japan.

A bit like the Hartley/England situation here. Rory Best has proved time and time again he is a fantastic captain of the Irish Rugby team. But is he the best hooker available to Schmidt right now? We’re not entirely sure. Niall Scannell, Sean Cronin and Rob Herring are three very good options, and Best isn’t getting any younger.

The Ulsterman will be 37 by the time Japan 2019 comes around. Will his body hold up? He’s struggled with injury this season, and now that Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton have stepped up and shown their worth as captains – should the torch be passed before the Rugby World Cup, rather than after?

It’s a huge decision, with arguments for both sides. But whatever decision Schmidt makes, we have confidence in him it’ll be the correct one.

The centre partnership.
Three does not go into two unfortunately, and Ireland have three very good centres – but only two positions available. For me, Garry Ringrose is your 13, end of story. As for the 12 slot, it’s not as easy as people think. Sure Henshaw and Ringrose have an excellent partnership built up over the last couple of seasons at club and country level, but you simply cannot overlook Bundee Aki.

The Connacht centre has been incredible since he game into the Irish set-up, and while he’s not the flashiest of centres – he rarely puts a foot wrong. He had a 90% tackle completion rate in the Six Nations, scored two important tries and set-up two more. He does the basics so well, and could be the perfect partner-in-crime for Ringrose.

At the same time, Henshaw is untouchable when he’s at his very best. He was one of Ireland’s star men in the Six Nations before his unfortunate injury, and knows Ringrose inside out.

Another huge decision for Schmidt, but a good complaint to have.

The back-row.
This time last year Ireland’s back-row was pretty much locked in. O’Mahony at six, O’Brien at seven and Stander at eight. Simple – until Dan Leavy arrived to spoil the party.

The young Leinster flanker has been a revelation this season, taking advantage of injuries to Josh van der Flier and Sean O’Brien. But what happens next season if Ireland has a clean bill of health in the back-row department?

Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy, Josh van der Flier, and plenty others are fighting for just three spots. Can you really leave a world-class operator like O’Brien out if he’s fit and in-form? At the same time – who the hell do you drop?

Once again – we’ll leave this to to you Joe. Enjoy!

While the three decisions above may be the most important, they’re not the only big decisions Schmidt has to make. He also needs to decide who’s going to partner James Ryan in the second-row long-term (Beirne? Toner? Henderson?) as well as whether or not he thinks Rob Kearney should remain as his fullback. And who will be his reserve nine? Will it be Cooney? Marmion? McGrath?

Any way you look at – Schmidt is about to enter the most important and exciting time of his tenure as Ireland head coach. And we simply cannot wait.

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