Joe Schmidt right to stick with Leinster's big names, insists Ulster legend Willie Anderson
Published 04/02/2014 | 01:30
Irish rugby legend Willie Anderson knows a thing or two about international rugby.
After all, at a time when Test matches were rather fewer and farther between than today's staple diet of at least 10 per season, he won 27 caps for Ireland – every one of them as a starter.
The last of his appearances was against Scotland in Dublin on February 3, 1990 when the big Dungannon lock captained an Irish side that included four more Ulstermen, his provincial compatriots that day having been John McDonald, Phil Matthews, David Irwin and Keith Crossan.
Almost 24 years later to the day – Sunday, February 3, 2014 – once again there were five Ulster players in Ireland's starting XV against the Scots, namely Rory Best, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Luke Marshall and Andrew Trimble.
In addition, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson – of whom Anderson is a big fan – were deployed from the bench.
Now 58, Sixemilecross-born-and-bred William Andrew Anderson was pleased at that representation.
Even so, at this stage he is expecting to see Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt continue to include as many Leinster players as possible. And he has no problem with that.
Why? Because having coached them before taking up the reins at national level, Anderson can see Schmidt knows that those Leinster players have already learned the habits he is now working to instill in every member of his squad.
So until such times as the others have learnt to do things his way, Anderson believes it is wholly reasonable that Schmidt will look to those who have walked the path with him, know where it leads and therefore are happy to keep following him.
As well as five Ulster players, Sunday's starting XV featured seven current Leinster personnel, their former colleague Jonny Sexton – now playing his club rugby in Paris as a member of the Racing Metro ensemble – and two Munster men.
Of course, but for Paul O'Connell's chest infection, Ulster's representation would have been culled to four and Munster's increased to three starters. Either way, Leinster players predominate, the bench having included five more of them.
Again, Anderson has no problem whatsoever with those figures. As he sees it, there can be no argument.
"Joe Schmidt is a very clever guy," the big Ulsterman said.
"Before coming to Ireland he was successful in France, working alongside Vern Cotter at Clermont. He was successful with Leinster, too – in three seasons under him they won the Heineken Cup twice, the Amlin Challenge and the PRO12. Now you can't argue with that record.
"So he knows these Leinster players, he knows who can do what and he knows who he can trust to do what he wants in the way he wants it done. And I think that until such times as he has the other non-Leinster players in this Ireland squad up to where he wants them to be, he will continue to rely on the tried and trusted.
"I don't think it's a case of bias towards Leinster; I think it's simply a matter of him giving jobs to people he knows can do them.
"As a coach, his priority is to win matches. And if, based on his experience of working with them, he believes his best chance of doing that is to include a load of Leinster guys, who can blame him? Coaches are judged on one thing and one thing only – results. So it's his neck that is on the block and you can't fault the guy for trying to protect it.
"I think Schmidt might well have had his two sides picked for the Scotland and Wales games a week ago, though Paul O'Connell's withdrawal will have forced him to change.
"But a six-day turn-around before playing Wales will have made him think long and hard about recovery time. I'd always imagined that for the Scotland game, ideally he would have picked as close as possible to the same side that performed so well against the All Blacks," Anderson said.
"Why would he want to do anything different? You'd send those same guys back out again and let them have another go. I don't think anybody could argue that they hadn't earned a place.
"He was without Sean O'Brien and Tommy Bowe. And then he lost O'Connell on the morning of the match. But where possible, he kept faith with the team that nearly beat the All Blacks.
"I have no doubt that Schmidt will have his team well prepared. And I just have a feeling that France versus Ireland in Paris in March could be a title decider."