Sunday 23 March 2014

Building on Success

Irish rugby is in a fantastic place right now. Three provinces are in the Heineken Cup quarter finals, the same three are the top 3 in the Pro12 league, where the benefits of Heineken Cup rugby are helping Connacht push for 6th place and a place in next season's version. This doesn't even reflect the player production that each province are now producing, with a larger number of quality players coming through each academy than ever before. Ireland punches well above it's weight in the rugby world considering how small the sport in in an even smaller country.

And I haven't even mentioned the national team yet. The recent 6 Nations win was in my mind down to John Plumtree's work with the Irish forwards, Joe's tactical nous and a whole heap of luck. There's no question that Ireland are in good hands with Plumtree and Schmidt, but as Joe mentioned during the week, only picking 18 players through five games is a luxury he's unlikely to have again, which is why the strengthen of the Irish squad is one major point he talked about pre 6 Nations.

There are between 10 and 13 games between now and the World Cup, and given the need for momentum going into a championship, there isn't much time for experimentation. That's why this summer's tour is so important. There is a need to build on the momentum that the 6 Nations win brings, especially as Argentina are potential RWC quarterfinalist opposition for Ireland. That said, there are a number of opportunities to rest key players.

A number of senior players need to be rested to reach the World Cup in top form, some fringe players need opportunities, and some new leaders need to be given a chance to step up. Others should be rested to see what an alternative would be like in the event that the incumbent gets injured.

Without further ado, here is my 32 man Irish squad for the two test Argentina tour that accomplishes those goals while still being strong enough to win.

Rested: Rob Kearney.
Kearney is one of those virtually unchallenged for his jersey. That's why I think it could be prudent to rest him, and have a look at the next two challengers in line: Robbie Henshaw and Felix Jones.

No one is rested here. I count 8 options for Schmidt on the wings which means that the competition is fierce and being "rested" could result in a winger losing their place in the squad. The five I've gone for in this squad also give options for other positions in the backline.
In: Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Simon Zebo.

The start of life without O'Driscoll. I've already chosen Fitzgerald and Henshaw in the squad, and I think it might be best to save D'Arcy so he can last. I'm also going to give Luke Marshall another summer off due to his latest head knock, but he might be one to make the plane anyway. I don't think Stuart Olding will be back in time. This leaves Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden covering the centre positions.

If Sexton doesn't get the summer off after the Top 14 campaign then something is wrong. This tour is tailor-made for resting him and giving the back up options some valuable gametime and international experience. Due to the lack of centres, I'm bringing three options, two of which can also play 12.
In: Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, JJ Hanrahan.

Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss are both over 33. Kieran Marmion has also been banging louder and louder on the door with each passing game. Conor Murray will travel, and I expect his game to rise again and take up a leadership role with Sexton, D'Arcy and Kearney missing from the touring squad. I suspect only one of Boss and Reddan will travel, if at all, as both know Schmidt's gameplan inside out and will be key in getting Marmion and Murray further up to speed with Joe's ways.
In: Murray, Marmion, Boss.

Cian Healy is only 25. Remember that, and both he and Jack McGrath are better when the other is in the 23. Both travel and the fight is between James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne for the third and last loosehead prop spot on the plane. No resting needed here.
In: Healy, McGrath, Kilcoyne.

While Healy is 25 and doesn't need a rest, the same cannot be said or Rory Best. Besides, In Richardt Strauss there is a viable alternative that will not reduce Ireland's competitiveness in the front row. Sean Cronin is also improving, and the last slot will go to Mike Sherry if he recovers from injury in time.
In: Strauss, Cronin, Sherry.

I find myself calling for Mike Ross to be rested every summer, but this summer it is absolutely crucial. What a scrummaging education Martin Moore could get down in Argentina, while also giving gametime to Declan Fitzpatrick would be hugely beneficial to Ireland. Ross has been going non stop for nearly two years now, and despite his impressive 6 Nations, none of us what him to over do it.
In: Moore, Fitzpatrick.

One thing that struck me when Ireland played Scotland was how little the loss of Paul O'Connell effected them. He is still an unbelievably inspirational figure, and walks into the Irish team, but Devin Toner and Dan Tuohy stood up well to the challenge. An overdue summer off would be good for the big man to recharge his batteries for the World Cup, while Toner and Tuohy will be joined by Donnacha Ryan and Iain Henderson as the locks for the tour. It's great to see such strength in depth that Mike McCarthy wouldn't even make that group.

Openside Flankers:
Sean O'Brien is injured, and I see absolutely no point in rushing him back for the tour, let him have a break and then give him the pre season to get himself right. This leaves Chris Henry continuing his great form in a green jersey, ably assisted by both Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy.

Blindside/ No.8.
Question: Who plays for Ireland at 8 when Jamie Heaslip is injured? Answer: It's never come up before. In the freakish event that it does happen in the next 18 months, it would be good for next in line to be given some gametime there. That's why I'd leave Heaslip at home, and give the 8 jersey and tour captaincy to Peter O'Mahony. Like Murray, O'Mahony would relish the leadership duties and has done well with the Munster captaincy this season. He's joined by Robin Copeland and Rhys Ruddock covering blindside and 8.
In: O'Mahony, Copeland, Ruddock

Squad in Full:
Felix Jones, Robbie Henshaw, Andrew Trimble, David Kearney, Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald. Fergus McFadden, Darren Cave, JJ Hanrahan, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Kieran Marmion, Isaac Boss, Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Dave Kilcoyne, Richardt Strauss, Sean Cronin, Mike Sherry, Martin Moore, Declan Fitzpatrick, Dan Tuohy, Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan, Iain Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Robin Copeland, Tommy O'Donnell, Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, Peter O'Mahony (c)

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