Bill On... The Case for Conservative Selection

In the aftermath of Ireland’s dramatic feat of escapology in their 6 nations opener in Paris last Saturday, I made the point to my father that, surely now, Ireland full back Rob Kearney had run his last race as an international rugby player.

Kearney’s performance featured a number of errors both under high balls and in defence. The very features of his game that his supporters point to as mitigants to the fact that he long ago ceased being an effective attacking force. It’s fairly self-evident that when a player starts failing at the things they’re supposedly good at, then they are on borrowed time. If Leinster selection is anything to go by, Leo Cullen seems to see this point. Joe Schmidt? Not so much.

Joe is not alone, as at the very least, my Dad seems to agree with him. “You can count on one hand the amount of mistakes Rob Kearney has made in a green shirt” was the essence of his argument. A fairly reasonable point. It might even be a factually accurate point (novel in this day and age). But It’s not the assertion itself I have an issue with, it’s what it signifies that is the problem. It’s what it says about the general attitude and approach to the game. Not making mistakes doesn’t translate to points on the board and the last time I checked this is still the measure by which games are won and lost.

And so, when it comes to the team selection of the Ireland national rugby union team, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am very much a populist. I always seem to want the form players picked, regardless of whether they’ve been through what might be objectively considered an appropriate period of test match preparation. Continuing in this vein of self-reflection, I will also admit that this viewpoint is primarily selfish in that I want the team to be as exciting as possible when in possession of the ball and if tries are to be scored, let them be beautiful swashbuckling tries, filled with intelligence, invention, trickery and guile. After 5 years of Joe Schmidt’s coaching tenure, I am only too painfully aware that this view is not shared by the man from Manuwatu.

Now the state of Italian rugby is such that it may provide Joe Schmidt with the opportunity, once a year in a Six Nations season, to throw a few bones to the masses in terms of team selection. It’s a small gesture that gives the supporter base the illusion that the coach values their collective opinion. We roll over and have our bellies tickled. But we’d be wrong to think it is any kind of signal that Joe Schmidt has a change in team philosophy in mind.

Italy scored three second half tries yesterday in what was otherwise a thumping Ireland win. Were it not for Keith Earls 60+ yard tracking defensive effort the home side may have embarrassingly conceded a try bonus to a team that has won one 6 nations game in 4 seasons. Two of those tries came from young, inexperienced and wildly popular selections making defensive mistakes. Dan Leavy (6 caps) got absolutely roasted in midfield and, the 2017/18 populist selection cause celebre, Jordan Larmour, was all at sea in defending an Italian counter attack.

From his own perspective, it was surely a win-win-win for Joe Schmidt. His team have won the game, he has given the people what they want (Jordan Larmour has an international cap after all) but he’s also had his own worldview reconfirmed. Mistake free play may not win games, but mistakes do have a cost. Conceding junk time tries against Italy is costly when you’re trying to build an aura of invincibility, trying to intimidate teams coming to Dublin, trying to recapture a Six Nations title, trying to win a world cup.

The issue remains one not of selection, but of the manner in which these ambitions can and will be fulfilled. For this coach knows but one way, the mistake-free way.