Yes, but how did he present the ball?

Anyone who watched Leinster or Munster at the weekend will have suffered a double-dose of mediocrity from then Irish provinces. Leinster huffed and puffed and eventually secured five match points against a committed but limited Zebre side, while Munster snatched an improbable draw from a 12-point deficit late in the match against Scarlets.

None of that mediocrity, however, came from Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls, both of whom were excellent in their respective teams. The two players have had plenty of troubles with injuries but both are currently fit and in-form. Beating defenders, breaking tackles, bringing others into the game – yes, even that – and up to task defensively, these lads have the all-court game. Keith Earls has had his distribution and awareness questioned down the years, but as with his defending, it feels like one or two high-profile mistakes have caused everyone to forget the number of times he has passed to another player or shown quick hands. Witness his line break and superb pass back inside in Sunday’s game.

Given the circumstances, they’re probably the two best three-quarters in the country, certainly in attack. Is there anything to be said for getting at least one of them into the matchday squad for the remaining Six Nations matches, starting with Sunday’s titanic whompingly huge battle with th’auld enemy?

With the dust having settled on the France game and everyone in agreement that Ireland have played precisely no rugby whatsoever in the tournament so far, it looks like a stretch to expect an intense kick chase and a decent rolling maul to be enough to beat an England side that is in rude health and even has – for the first time since the likes of Mike Catt and Will Greenwood were around – a potentially dangerous midfield. England won’t leave the Aviva Stadium with less than 15 points, so Ireland will have to go out and play a bit to win.

But how? Ireland have a backline stacked with kick-catchers and straight-line runners and have barely crafted a line-break in the tournament so far. The centres have put in monumental defensive shifts, so credit is due, with tackle counts a flanker would be happy to stand over (insert your own joke about Peter O’Mahony here) against France, and while both have also gained metres by running straight and square, there’s been little in the way of guile. Surely one of Fitzgerald or Earls at outside-centre would offer a little more threat?

Another avenue into the team for one or other would be on the wing, where Simon Zebo has done little enough wrong, but hasn’t really been at his best this season. He’s been serviceable enough, and it might be harsh to drop him, but would Ireland benefit from having one of our cause celebres in his place?  We’d vote for change.

Failing that, the very least we can hope for is for just one of the gruesome twosome to get into the No.23 shirt. Felix Jones is a good player having a fine season, and doesn’t deserve to be dropped either, but he’s an ill-fitting reserve for a backline already stacked with full-backs.  If we’re chasing a try late in the game, who is more likely to do something game-changing?  Not Felix Jones.

Chances are, of course, that none of this will happen. Schmidt has now become the anti-Deccie when it comes to selection. While Kidney appeared to bend over backwards to get his favourite 15 players into the side regardless of how unbalanced it looked, Schmidt places a huge premium on the work done on the training paddock, and only in extreme cases will he parachute players into the team who haven’t gone through the strategy in Carton House. You can guarantee Joe won’t be too interested in who made a 50m line break or beat six tacklers. In fact he is probably more interested in how Fitzgerald presented the ball after running past everyone. As it happens, he did it pretty well, and a try followed. Let’s hope it counts in his favour.

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35 Comments

  1. connachtexile

     /  February 25, 2015

    Fitzgerald was the 24th man when we played France so he can’t be that far off making the first XV. That said Schmidt has stated he sees Fitzgerald as a winger who can cover centre not as a centre who play wing. So even if Henshaw/Payne was out I couldn’t see Fitzgerald being drafted in to replace them at least in the 6 Nations.
    As for Earls he’s an incredible winger and I’d be happy to see him wear the 11 or 14 of Ireland but he’s not a international standard centre or if he is he’s a mediocre international standard centre. If we’re going to have players like Earls or Fitzgerald in the first XV then lets play them in their optimum positions.

    • curates_egg

       /  February 26, 2015

      It’s a bit ironic of Schmidt to state that he sees Fitz as a wing who can play centre (I haven’t seen it) given he is insisting on shoehorning Payne (an out-and-out fullback) into the centre. If games played for their provinces this season are anything to go by, Fitzgerald is a better centre than Payne and has now put quite a string of games together at 13 (albeit, the last one was on the wing). Earls has now also had 4(?) games at centre too and looked pretty decent. And we won’t get start on the guy who actually plays 13 at Payne’s province.

      Maybe it will come good but the Payne at 13 experiment just looks so forced at present. The mantra seems to be about “getting your best players on the pitch” regardless of where they are playing – it has been trotted out by lots of people close to the camp. I won’t even enter into the debate of whether or not Payne is one of our top 5 backs (he is certainly an excellent fullback), I just don’t agree with playing players out of position when there are alternatives that are at least as good.

  2. ORiordan

     /  February 25, 2015

    Meh. Fitzgerald is the most overrated player in Irish rugby. If you wanted a 13 who scores tries then it would be Darren Cave on current form.

    • Can somebody impose a ban on mentioning Darren Cave’s name on this blog? He’s never going to start for Ireland at 13 again. Mentioning him in an international context is a waste of everybody’s time. You might as well suggest a centre pairing of Mike Mullins and Rob Henderson for the England match.

      • ORiordan

         /  February 25, 2015

        It is just highlighting that touting Fitzgerald is the triumph of style over substance and his “x factor” means, “well, we haven’t got anything concrete to base this on, but he looks flashy”

        Let’s face it, if Fitzgerald had Cave’s recent try scoring record, sections of the media would be even more apoplectic with indignation that Fitzgerald wasn’t being selected. (Fitzgerald’s own try scoring record is, of course, nothing to write home about with just 2 in 28 appearances in the green jersey, both against Italy.)

        • D6W

           /  February 25, 2015

          “Fitzgerald is the triumph of style over substance and his “x factor” means, “well, we haven’t got anything concrete to base this on, but he looks flashy”

          He is a flashy runner, but his recent performances for Leinster have shown him to have real substance. He has been Leinsters best back in recent games, mayking significant breaks, at least one of which set up a crucial try, as well as scoring one himself. Maybe you have missed these games, otherwise you could not realistically have dismissed his contributions.

        • Give it up with Cave already. He’s a one-paced flat track bully. Jeez, next you’ll be touting Billy Holland for the international squad. Oh, wait…

          • Donal

             /  February 25, 2015

            Fitzgerald has also been excellent in attack, hungry for work off the ball, MOTM in a number of games, and as stated Leinster’s best back.

            Billy Holland was very good at the weekend, he looked powerful in contact.

          • Donal, fair point though the MOTM in the Wasps game was very surprising having watched from the stands. Did he look much better on TV? Kind of touches on O’Riordan’s point that it seems to be more acceptable to give MOTM to Luke than other less celebrated players.

        • Billy

           /  February 25, 2015

          Bit harsh on Fitzgerald. It’s funny how some people get labelled with “X-Factor”. I always saw him as a highly functional winger; defensively brilliant, great footballer, quite strong, decent (if not groundbreaking) step, not fantastic gas for an international but the fans/media seem to have reinvented him post-injury as some sort of maverick.

          Not blown away by him as a 13 yet; defends well but doesn’t seem to pick consistently good lines from what I’ve seen. He may just need more exposure.

          • curates_egg

             /  February 26, 2015

            “Not blown away by him as a 13 yet; defends well but doesn’t seem to pick consistently good lines from what I’ve seen. He may just need more exposure.”

            So slightly better than Payne then, as he at least sometimes picks good lines.

          • Billy

             /  February 26, 2015

            You may not be getting at this but I don’t hold Payne responsible for the missed opportunity against France. From what I saw, Payne’s hard line kept the French defence narrow and was the reason there was so much space out wide. I think Sexton made a bad call, possibly because of his eye. If Payne had held off and drifted, as many have suggested, the French defence could also have drifted. I think Payne ran a really good line there.

          • curates_egg

             /  February 26, 2015

            I wasn’t referring to that in particular. He has overrun a few plays and taken lines that made him ineffective a good few times.

            I disagree with you on your analysis above though – Payne ran at the same defender who was marking Sexton: he didn’t fix anyone. By cutting in, he took Kearney and Zebo (who were quite deep) out of the play and made it easier to defend. Watch from 1.09 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cf3HExgB68U

          • Billy

             /  February 26, 2015

            Well, Payne’s run made Huget come narrower, even if Payne didn’t run at him directly. However, Payne’s run was far from hard or decisive (i remembered it being better) which created attacking indecision. The optimal situation would have been Payne running a hard line and Sexton skipping him. The last man (Huget) would have been in no man’s land.

  3. SportingBench

     /  February 25, 2015

    Not sure either Fitzgerald or Earls would make that much difference to be honest.
    Payne is a good open field runner given the chance (as you’d expect from a full back) and Henshaw is good – full stop. All of our back line have shown the ability at Pro12 level to create and use space. Hell, just last year Zebo was the clause celebre and pushed forward for his “x-factor” which is pretty much what this article is now saying about Earls and Fitzgerald. And as O’Riordan say, if it form and tries you want, then Cave is the man much more than the more stylish two proposed.
    Given the potency of the English attack these days not sure it is worth a punt on either player without a genuine reason and to be honest the reasons given seem to fall in to the more “looks good playing rugby and is stylish” rather than an objective assessment of what they might bring to the team. I certainly wouldn’t be tampering with the centres without due cause as any defensive weakness will be punished.
    I can see the logic of changing the bench a bit given the cover for full back already in the team mind you.

    • Stephen

       /  February 25, 2015

      “Payne is a good open field runner, given the chance” – There is no open field from the 3/4 line in Test rugby, though. This is the problem.

  4. It’s an interesting one because Schmidt places so much emphasis on analysis and exploiting opposition weakness you have to imagine he’s spotted that England’s wingers are middling to ok under the high ball but, critically from 13 out none are what you’d call defensively strong tacklers.

    Therefore the case for altering our system to be more running less kick chase, and critically having backs who can take and exploit the outside space is pretty strong. For me (and I fully accept that I have blue-tinted glasses on) Fitzy has been playing fantastically recently and I’d bring him in at 11 instead of Zebo.

    In the interests of RWC I’d leave 12 and 13 as is – the lads need game time together and given the amount of traffic they’re going to have to handle, effective tackling is really important through the middle.

    • That’s no reflection on Zebo by the way, who I think has been doing the Schmidt level basics really well, committed tackling, strong kick chase and his passing has been excellent when he’s moved into first or second receiver. I just think maybe he’s gone too far that way and lost some of the zing and appetite to take a risk as a result.

      Damned if he does damned if he doesn’t kind of statement I know…

    • curates_egg

       /  February 26, 2015

      I think England’s wingers are pretty good under the highball. Nowell has played a lot at fullback. Joseph has too but a bit less. May has been dropped for a reason.

  5. D6W

     /  February 25, 2015

    Watching the provincial games last weekend, I was struck by the number of irish international players that were lining out. It was a striking indication of the depth we now have.

    As for Earls and Fitzgerald, they are both excellent left wingers, and seem to have matured so they are no longer taking on too much themselves. Don’t really see either as a starting centre. Luke has an outside chance to break in to 23 for this weekend, but unlkely. Hopefully they will both be back to their peaks for RWC.

  6. laughingcrow

     /  February 25, 2015

    Who ever plays there, they’ll be playing to the Schmidt game plan…. which may well be keep it tight and kick chase (again).

    Were the game plan to change, who’s to say Henshaw and Payne coudlnt be as effective or better than Earls/Fitz?

  7. Das Waderwurst

     /  February 25, 2015

    Henshaw and Payne have looked rock-solid defensively, and I can’t see any way that Schmidt would switch things up in the starting centre partnership. Jones at 23 is a strange one though, especially as flexibility from the bench is something JS really seems to value.

    As has been pointed out before, everyone outside Sexton from 12-14 has experience at full-back if Kearney was to get injured, with 15 probably being Payne’s more natural position. Having Fitz or Earls ahead of Jones on the bench would give us a much wider choice of options if there was disruption due to injury, as well as presenting a greater attacking threat.

    Schmidt obviously rates Jones, but for me he is not at the same level as Earls and Luke, despite a lot of good qualities. He’s not going to give X-factor off the bench and he’s not really going to enable any significant shift in gameplan. There’s no scenario I can imagine where his introduction would be a positive thing, as Kearney is a far superior player and rarely going to be subbed unless injured.

  8. andrew097

     /  February 25, 2015

    I like Zebo he usually finds himself in the right place but he looked very ordinary against France, a bit underpowered. I often think he would be a better bet then Jones at fullback, good in the air, long boot and tackles much better then Kearney. Plus he has that ability to be in the right place.
    Having said all that I do think we could be better with Fitz or Earls on the wing. two from Bowe, Earls and Fitz, very handy

  9. andrew097

     /  February 25, 2015

    Lord knows Kearney needs a bit of competition for the fifteen spot

    • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

       /  February 26, 2015

      I hear this line repeatedly – always as a statement of the obvious (Lord knows) and never challenged. And then we all discuss how many options Ireland have a full back. I must be missing something???

      • SportingBench

         /  February 26, 2015

        An interesting aside, how many penalties do you think Rob K will give away for holding on this week? I’m going for 3.

  10. Is there anything to be said for parachuting Dave Kearney into the starting jersey ahead of Zebo???

    • osheaf01

       /  February 25, 2015

      Average Dave? Er, no.
      You might as well be calling for James Coughlan to replace Heaslip.

  11. I can’t see any scenario in which Schmidt will drop one of the starting backs for Fitz or Earls. He seems very committed to Henshaw/Payne (and anyway doesn’t seem to think of Fitz or Earls primarily as centres), and if they’re to be our centre partnership they need to play every game together between now and RWC. They’ve also not really done anything wrong – yes there’s the well-publicised lack of attacking prowess, but we’ve not yet played to a gameplan that would give them many opportunities on that front. Defensively they’ve been rock-solid, which Ireland will need against the Bath lot. Regarding the wing, after all the #OUTRAGE over Zebo’s exclusion last year I’d be very surprised to see Zeebs dropped just as he seems to have fully embraced the Schmidt style. So if either Earls or Fitz are going to be involved, my guess is it would have to be in the 23 shirt.

    Having said all of that, I really can’t make sense of the inclusion of Jones over one of those two. No disrespect meant to Jones at all, but from a purely practical perspective it seems like a very un-Schmidt sort of choice given that he tends to favour versatility in his bench selections. I’m a fully paid-up member of the cult of Joe so I continue to assume he’s got a good reason for selecting Jones, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it might be. Speculating wildly, it may be that the gameplans for Italy and France were based on the idea that, if all went according to the Schmidt Masterplan(TM), we’d be looking either to extend or defend an existing lead in the last 15 minutes or so – not, ideally, chasing a game, which is when you’d really want to spring an Earls or a Fitzgerald off the bench. If he selects either of them against England it could perhaps be an indication that he’s doing some contingency planning in case Ireland are behind by >3 points at 60/65 minutes.

    • SportingBench

       /  February 25, 2015

      You might be right about the difference in Schmidt’s thoughts between chasing a game and defending when assessing the options on the bench.
      The other thought (and this is out there for comment not reflecting my views necessarily) is that perhaps he simply thinks that Jones is a better player and that although more celebrated, Earls and FitzG are not international quality. Hemight very well be thinking having a better player out of position is a better option than Earls and Fitzgerald. Despite the column inches, both have played quite a bit of international rugby without ever looking truly at home so that might be his thinking and maybe he has them in the Cave category of flat track bullies at Pro12 level?

  12. Declan

     /  February 25, 2015

    Before I read the comment section i bravely pridict that they will split exactly down provincial lines with even a ‘where’s Darren Cave?’ Thrown in…

    • Mary Hinge

       /  February 25, 2015

      And of course fabulous Dave Kearney has had an airing too!!

  13. I can’t see JS making any alterations to the back line. I think Murphy will most likely be promoted to replace Heaslip with TOD coming in on the bench. The only other change I can see being made is potentially a direct swap between Healy and McGrath. I can’t see any point in dropping average Dave into the team and I actually think Zebo has done what he’s been asked to do. I’d agree that Jones seems an odd choice on the bench but as a Leinster fan I’ve learnt not to question the great ones judgement. We’ll all be watching some Ireland match and Jones will come on and suddenly his selection will make sense. Really looking forward to Sunday. Looks like England will be dropping Johnny (obvious target) May in favour of jack Nowell who while shorter and lighter than the irish back three is a much better player and not as defensively frail as May IMO.

  14. curates_egg

     /  February 26, 2015

    Could you please introduce a citing system for people who use X Factor?

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