Joe Schmidt will undoubtedly be scrutinising the Heineken Cup performances of those on the periphery of his Irish Rugby squad in the coming weeks, writes Dominic Evans.
The upcoming two weeks see the return of the Heineken Cup, as the tournament enters the final two rounds of the pool stages. For the four Irish provinces, qualification will be at the forefront of their minds. For Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt, the tenacity and quality of the Irish players will be his main concern.
As the forthcoming Six Nations is one of the last opportunities to showcase raw talent in key areas, Joe Schmidt will be looking to finalise his best side in preparation for the 2015 World Cup.
If Schmidt fields the New Zealand starters against Scotland then Ireland will very likely win. In multiple positions Ireland have international veterans, but creating a culture of picking on current rather than past form would surely establish greater competitiveness for squad places.
For example, Schmidt should consider a new centre partnership. Brian O’ Driscoll, whether he retires soon or not, is a liability. His performances have been hit and miss in recent times, summed up by Warren Gatland dropping him out of the match day squad for the Lions’ third series decider. The Lions thumped Australia 41-16 with Roberts and Davis. If Ireland want to seriously be in contention for the Webb Ellis cup, then searching elsewhere would be beneficial.
A new combination of Luke Marshall and Keith Earls could in fact pay dividends for Ireland now, and in the long run. A top performance by Marshall in Ulster’s next two games against Montpellier and the crucial Leicester match should see him rise above O’ Driscoll in the pecking order.
Another beneficial factor of playing inexperience is the possibility of injuries to star players come 2015. With the massive loss of Sean O Brien last week, whom Leinster teammate Eoin Reddan called “an exceptional player”, Schmidt will need to call-on an unseasoned flanker to fill his boots. The likes of Shane Jennings and Kevin McLaughlin are pushing hard for a test start in the Six Nations. Both players can showcase their claims for Ireland in the next fortnight. If O’ Brien succumbs to another injury then Schmidt can have genuine options rather than forced selection.
It is also worth noting that some of Ireland’s household names, including Simon Zebo and Conor Murray, are just back training after injury and may not be match fit come the opening match against Scotland. Why not re-select in-form winger Craig Gilroy from Ulster or try-out Connacht scrum half Kieran Marmion, both of whom are playing weekly for their provinces.
While rounds five and six of the Heineken Cup will (hopefully) provide viewers with high intensity matches, Joe Schmidt will be hoping players on the periphery of his squad list can provide him with viable options when the Six Nations arrives.
Pundit Arena, Dominic Evans.