Twickenham is no place to throw in a young lad. Or maybe it is – Joe Schmidt has picked two debutants in the XV to face England on the Cabbage Patch on Saturday. Choo Choo Stu McCloskey has been met with benign eyelid flutters as the entire country says “I told you so”, while Josh van der Flier has been met with #OUTRAGE by around a quarter of the country for taking the shirt rightfully belonging to Tommy O’Donnell. And Ultan Dillane will join the fray with 25 minutes to go, giving us three debutants against a serious rugby country. Conservatism eh?
While McCloskey is clearly the form inside centre in Ireland (if not Europe), it has taken the injury to Jared Payne for him to get into the team, and Dillane is of course simply the next best fit second row; but van der Flier has leapfrogged both the TOD and Rhys Ruddock to wear the 7 shirt – and that’s certainly the biggest surprise of the selection. Gerry dropped a hint last week that VDF had jumped above the TOD, but we thought the be-leathered one had one too many tequilas the night before. O’Donnell can count himself unlucky – 20 tackles against France shouldn’t be overlooked – but it’s hard not to be excited about van der Flier’s potential.
The best thing about the picks are that it gives some sense of Ireland trying something to actually win the game. Groundhog VDF will be in direct opposition to the chiselled cheekbones, perfect teeth and rippling muscles of Tim Nice-but-Dim, and students of rugby will recall how Pocock, Hooper and Warbs utterly destroyed England at the breakdown in the RWC. Now VDF is nowhere near the league of those gents at this point, but it’s a selection to target a weakness. Equally picking McCloskey at 12 offers a way to put Owen Farrell, England’s second five-eighth and playmaker, on the back foot and rattled, preventing him focusing on his real job – getting Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph into space.
At the very least it’s a selection that will give England new problems to think about, and some that perhaps they weren’t expecting. And commentators such as Quinlan and Horgan are never done reminding us that the arrival of a couple of young upstarts in the starting team can create a buzz about the place. It also should help to debunk a couple of myths about Joe Schmidt. Derided in some quarters as an overly conservative strategist and selector, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily chime with a broader view of his career. The Clermont team he coached and particularly the Leinster side he led to consecutive Heineken Cups were frequently thrilling to watch. In Schmidt’s second season, his Leinster side also eschewed the much fabled offload, but such was the accuracy of their gainline-passing game they didn’t need to do it. The current Irish game-plan, long on kick-chase was largely forged in the successful November series in 2014, when Ireland were shorn of ball-carriers through injury and as a result their best means of gaining metres was through reclaiming kicks. It worked superbly, and its success was carried into the last Six Nations, but has perhaps grown stale in the last couple of series, and the time is nigh for some evolution.
We’re ravaged by injuries, and the English bench looks tough, but Healy and Ruddock are no slouches. We’re getting a bit optimistic. We should know better really.
Ireland team: Bob; Trimble, Henshaw, McCloskey, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Besty, Ross; Ryan, Toner; Passion, van der Flier, Heaslip.
Replacements: Strauss, DJ Church, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Reddan, Madigan, Zeebs