Never has there been a time in Irish Rugby where the national side has had a more talented group of wingers to choose from. Ireland have produced some exceptional wingers in the past with the likes of Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan and Simon Geoghegan all enjoying nice stints in green, but the current cohort of wingers that Joe Schmidt has to choose from allows Ireland to comfortably accommodate the absences of Tommy Bowe, and now more recently Luke Fitzgerald, who was ruled out for the entire Six Nations on Tuesday after injuring his knee in training.
With a clean bill of health, Schmidt can choose from any combination of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald, David Kearney, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls or Craig Gilroy to take up position on the wings, with all of the aforementioned filling in for the national team in some capacity over the last number of seasons. The level of competition for a spot in the 11 or 14 jersey for Ireland is fierce, so much so that Ulster flyer Andrew Trimble was excluded from Ireland’s Rugby World Cup squad just one year after winning the IRUPA Players’ Player Of The Year award for 2014.
Injuries certainly didn’t help the 31-year-old’s cause last season, as if Trimble had managed to avoid several foot injuries he would have more than likely retained his spot in Schmidt’s starting XV for the Six Nations and the subsequent World Cup. But he didn’t, as toe and foot injuries derailed his season and made the Coleraine native Schmidt’s poster boy for positional insecurity.
During Schmidt’s time in charge of Ireland he has brought tremendous success to the national side and boasts a win percentage that stacks up with the very best coaches that international rugby has to offer. His style of high-kicking, hard chasing, player accountable brand of rugby has resonated well with the Irish playing squad and has been a hallmark of his time in charge. Other hallmarks have included building his team around a core group of players with Mike Ross, Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney a testament to Schmidt’s trust in his players. These players have been staples of Schimdt’s Ireland sides over the last number of years and have seemingly walked straight back into the starting side should they have been temporarily displaced through injury. As for that talented group of wingers I mentioned earlier, they have not been afforded the same luxury with Schmidt using five different combinations containing six different wingers over the last two years.
It’s been a merry-go-round of potential match winners who can never seem to quite hold on to their place in the squad, whether it be through injury, lack of form or both. Injuries to Fitzgerald and Bowe makes matters somewhat less complicated but even with their absences, it’s still a four horse race between Andrew Trimble, David Kearney, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo.
All have been given opportunities by Schmidt over the last two years and all, to some extent, have taken those opportunities when provided with a starting berth. With the exception of Trimble, the trio of Kearney, Earls and Zebo have been liabilities defensively at times for Ireland and it’s something that Schmidt will simply have no tolerance for, with Zebo in particular punished for his defensive frailties against Wales during last year’s tournament. But despite their shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball, all three are in reasonably good form. Conventional wisdom suggests that Trimble and Earls will start given Trimble’s defensive prowess and Earls good form at last year’s World Cup, but the problem with conventional wisdom is its conventional, and if Schmidt has thought us one thing over the last few seasons its that conventional wisdom counts for little when trying to predict a Joe Schmidt Ireland team.