January 29, 2014
On Monday afternoon Joe Schmidt announced a reduced 34-man squad for the first 2 games of this years 6 Nations tournament. For the most part it was a fairly straight forward affair with only a couple of calls surprising people. Yet still there are calls of bias. Why?
The breakdown of the squad is below but the composition of the squad needs to be analysed. It has already caused a good deal of consternation in certain quarters and the fact that 18 of the 34 are Leinster players is a fact that is being played up quite a bit. But how fair is that? To determine that we need to look at who lost out to who and why.
Cian Healy, Jack McGrath
At loose-head David Kilcoyne lost out to Jack McGrath, which IMO is a tight but fair call. McGrath has come on hugely this season with both Leinster and Ireland. He deserves to be where he is now. Kilcoyne is an excellent loose-head as well and there really isn’t much between them. I can understand why some would rate him ahead of McGrath, but as I said it is tight so there is no way such a close call can prove any bias.
Rory Best, Sean Cronin
At hooker both Herring of Ulster and Varley of Munster were deemed to be behind Sean Cronin. Given that Leinsters line-out has functioned very well with Cronin and his work about the park has been so good for Leinster this season (plus his good showing against New Zealand) I don’t think this one can be argued too much. Cronin is an excellent ball carrier and undoubtedly an excellent impact sub. While Strauss featured for the Wolfhounds he was never really in the running having only just returned from 3 months on the side-lines. Again no clear signs of bias.
Mike Ross, Martin Moore
At tight-head Martin Moore was preferred ahead of Archer and Ah You. I’ve made my feelings on Archer clear in the past. A hugely improved player over the one that we saw 2 years ago most definitely, but his scrummaging is still hit and miss. His tendency to drive forward with his upper body while leaving his feet stationary causing him to collapse scrums doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but it still happens. It is a pretty dangerous issue to have, even more-so at international level. His work in the loose is good, but until he cuts out that issue at scrum time he cannot be in the running. Ah You was always a long shot, but has been very good for Connacht this season.
However Moore was the obvious choice with Fitzpatrick out. He’s been putting real pressure on Mike Ross at Leinster so isn’t far off the required level, if at all. Had Fitzpatrick been fit it is highly likely he would be involved ahead of Moore as he was during the AIs. As a result I can’t see any evidence of bias here.
Paul O’Connell, Mike McCarthy, Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy,Iain Henderson
None of the original second-row options have been dropped.
Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock
None of the original blindside options have been dropped.
Chris Henry, Tommy O’Donnell
None of the original openside options have been dropped.
Jamie Heaslip, Robin Copeland, Jordi Murphy
Only Robbie Diack didn’t make the cut in the back-row. Diack really only covers blindside and second-row at a stretch and we already have Henderson for that. Murphy covers all 3 back-row positions (again at a stretch) and so adds that little bit more versatility to the side. I doubt he’ll feature in the opening 2 games unless there are a couple of injuries in the back row. I’m not sure where any claims of bias could be made here.
Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss
At scrum-half Murray and Reddan were preferred to Boss and Marmion. Reddans form has been better than Boss’ lately and Marmion is still quite inexperienced at this level so to me this seems to be a fair call. Marmions time will come, most likely on the summer tour to Argentina.
EDIT: No sooner do I post this then I see Reddan is out with a calf strain and Boss has been called up in his place.
Jonothan Sexton, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan
At out-half Ian Keatley lost out to Ian Madigan. Madigan played well for the Wolfhounds in poor conditions at the weekend while Keatley didn’t quite cover himself in glory, particularly when kicking the ball away inside the last minute. Based on the weekends performance alone this call too seems fair. It should also be noted that there were plenty of calls for Keatley to be dropped in favour of JJ Hanrahan in recent weeks from Munster also. So while Madigans form for Leinster hasn’t been great, neither has Keatleys for Munster. Keatley has yet to really do anything to put himself ahead of Madigan so this call is the right one.
Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Marshall
None of the original inside centre options have been dropped.
Brian O’Driscoll, Darren Cave
None of the original outside centre options have been dropped.
Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden, David Kearney, Andrew Trimble
On the wings Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo were not retained as Schmidt chose to stick with the players he initially selected in the 44-man squad, Keith Earls excepted due to injury. Gilroy wasn’t great against the Saxons and hasn’t done a huge amount lately to force his selection. Zebo on the other hand probably has. After some poor form at the start of the season and a long injury lay-off Zebo seemed to be hitting form by his display against Edinburgh in Round 6 of the HEC. He again looked lively off the bench against the Saxons. His exclusion from the 34-man squad is the most notable, and the one causing most of the uproar. So why wasn’t he selected?
Personally I would have had him in my squad, but I’m fairly sure I understand why Joe didn’t include him. Zebo has played the least amount of rugby of all the other options this season. He has also gone the longest without playing any international rugby. He has only had 2 games since returning from injury against sides that are a long way off the likes of Wales. And most importantly he hasn’t been involved in the Irish camp for very long. His injury meant that he missed the camps in the run up to the Autumn Internationals and Christmas.
Joe has shown a preference thus far for guys that have been around the set-up and learning the systems over those that haven’t. And given that he is such a detail oriented coach it’s only right and fair to give guys time to settle into the new set-up. The 6 Nations isn’t a place for a guy to learn these things. That’s at training. And Zebos time there has been very, very limited. This was always going to count against him. I’d be confident that Zebo has a huge part to play in Irelands future under Joe and that we will see him before the tournament is out. It’s far too early to cry foul over his exclusion as there is logic and reason to it IMO.
Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Felix Jones
None of the original full-backs have been dropped.
Players Dropped From Original Extended Squad:
David Kilcoyne, Rob Herring, Damien Varley, Stephen Archer, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, Isaac Boss, Kieran Marmion & Ian Keatley
Players Added But Not Retained:
Richardt Strauss, Simon Zebo & Craig Gilroy
Players Coming Back from Injury:
Declan Fitzpatrick, Donnacha Ryan, Roger Wilson & Tommy Bowe
Players Out Due to Injury:
Mike Sherry, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Stuart Olding & Keith Earls
Based on all of the above I don’t see a case for this supposed bias at all. In reality the only tight calls were Moore over Kilcoyne and the exclusion of Zebo. And neither of these decisions are without merit. Every other call makes perfect sense. Factor into things that Fitzpatrick, Ryan, Ferris, Bowe and Earls would all walk straight back into the side if not injured (plus Zebo once he’s been involved a bit more), all at the expense of Leinster players, and things look a lot different.
It’s time to put aside the provincial loyalties and the rivalries and get behind the Irish side. We’ve seen a glimpse of what is possible in the last outing, now we want to see that promise become a reality. With only 4 days to go I’m getting fairly excited about Irelands 6 Nations campaign. Let’s get behind the lads and hope that this season we can live up to our potential.