Tough calls weighing heavily on Joe Schmidt

Ireland coach has to cut his Rugby World Cup squad from 41 to 31 on Monday

Despite a welcome win, Joe Schmidt cut a relatively forlorn figure in his post-match media conference and the cause of his woe is revisiting the task of naming a 31-man World Cup squad which, four years ago, prompted the worst days he's known in coaching.

Schmidt and his assistant coaches will review today’s 22-17 win over Wales at the Principality Stadium in detail and meet on Sunday and Monday, then finalising their squad and submitting the 31 names to World Rugby.

Looking ahead to the process, Schmidt said: “I think it’s a horrible couple of days. It’s probably the worst couple of days I’ve had in coaching, this time four years ago.

“I know how hard these players are working and how good they are, and how hard they’ve worked over a number of years because this is the pinnacle, this is what they’ve wanted to go after, this is what we’ve talked about last Christmas as being very much the sole focus of the year.


“And for those players who miss out, it’s going to be a real body blow, and I’m incredibly conscious of that and I sympathise with it. But you can only take 31 and that’s brutality of it, I think,” said the Irish coach, his words trailing away.

Discussing Will Addison’s smooth performance at fullback in only his fourth test and first game since January, while balancing his lack of game time with his versatility, Schmidt admitted there’s no guarantee the coaches will get everything right.

“Right now, I’m not sure myself because we need to have a look back and see what our balance is. Whatever you do, there’s always a risk you don’t get it quite right. I don’t think we got it quite right last time.

“Sometimes, retrospect is the only time you actually know if you got it right or not because going forward you predict as best as you can and do as much work as you can to ensure that they’re in the right physical condition, that they are ready to go.

“But you don’t really know until you send them out there and they’re in the thick of it, really.”

As for some of those who pressed their cases, Addison was briefly replaced after suffering a superficial cut and then taken off before the hour mark to ensure cramping in his calf didn’t lead to another injury.

“He has such a balanced running style, he gets a good look at the pitch running from fullback. He’s an accomplished kicker and accomplished at kicking goals as well, so he’s a good back-up to have from that perspective.

"But he's underdone, he hasn't had as much rugby as we would have liked him to have gotten. He didn't play a lot all year up until today, he was missing right through the Six Nations. His versatility is a huge strength for him, the fact that he can genuinely play on the wing, he's got high speed.

“Obviously, he stepped in very late at 13 for us against Argentina, so he can probably cover the full spectrum of the back three and 13, which is an asset when you’re trying to narrow a squad down. We’ll be looking at him and comparing a few other guys to see who best fits the mould.”

Jack Carty would appear to have sealed his place in the squad as one of the three outhalves, although Schmidt assuredly wasn't alone in feeling some sympathy for Ross Byrne and the hand he was dealt last Saturday in Twickenham.

"He's done well, yeah," said Schmidt of Carty. "It's apples, oranges and lemons, really, isn't it? You've got a number of different '10' options and one hasn't played yet but we all know that if he plays next week then he'll go, then there's another one who I thought had 50 superb minutes against Italy and is currently injured but might be back on the bench next week or certainly back for Scotland," he said in reference to Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery.

“And Jack has done incredibly well and Ross, I thought, was really unlucky. He got all the tired legs for his opportunity and he didn’t get front foot ball or the time and space that Jack got today. Jack made most of it. Jack did really well. And he did really well when he came on here in the Six Nations, in that little cameo that he played, he did superbly.

“He’s a creative player, Jack, and a good, instinctive player.”

Most likely all the front-rowers involved in this game will make the squad along with Cian Healy and one more hooker. Asked about the performances of David Kiloyne and Andrew Porter in underlining his ability to cover loosehead as well as tighthead, Schmidt said: "Obviously Dave Kilcoyne did well. He got a bit of space in the middle of the pitch but it would be fair to say he made a bit of space in the middle of the pitch as well.

“He punched through a couple of tackles and again gave us a little bit of front foot to play off which is important. I thought he got off the line and tackled well as well. He definitely puts his body on the line.”

Schmidt also praised the pressure Porter applied at scrum time.

“To fully physically deliver as he did, I thought he was really good as well. I thought he was on the ball a couple of times defensively as well. He did really well getting over the ball. I think it’s a strength in the way that he plays and that he is good in those post-tackle situations.

“So that’s another string to his bow that is very handy to have when you are trying to make sure that you get the ball back or you get pressure on opposition ruck, post-tackle ball.”

Collectively, Schmidt was happy with the Irish set-pieces and their defence.

“Our set-piece was much improved. We lost a lineout but our scrum was pretty strong and our defence as well. We probably only had a third of the ball in the first-half, in the game really, and territory-wise we weren’t dominant either.

“In the first-half maybe we slipped off four or five tackles, but we’d a lot of effective tackles. A lot of guys connecting up and doing a good job. So, from that perspective, there were some positives.”

Indeed, despite only 41 per cent possession and 36 per cent territory, Ireland made 126 tackles, missing 12 compared to last week's 38, whereas Wales made 78 and missed 21.

"We've got to make sure we build on that again this week," said Schmidt. "There will be some changes and, talking to Gats, those changes will happen and it will be a whole different contest again," added the Irish coach, who said Sexton and Robbie Henshaw trained well at the end of this week and will be involved next Saturday.

The Irish captain, Peter O’Mahony, admitted it had been a long week following that 57-15 defeat by England. “It’s a difficult place to come and get a performance and a win like that. Joe alluded to it and from a player’s point of view, it was a long week. Guys who got an opportunity couldn’t wait to get out there and we certainly left the jersey in a better place than last week.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times