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Tony Ward: Schmidt's decision to hand Johnny Sexton the Ireland captaincy is a strange call for two reasons

 

Shizuoka shocker: Ireland’s players reflect on their defeat by Japan at the weekend
Shizuoka shocker: Ireland’s players reflect on their defeat by Japan at the weekend
Joe Schmidt

By Tony Ward

I'm sure he didn't invent the expression but, in his time as Ireland head coach, whenever his charges had a fall - which wasn't all that often to be fair - Eddie O'Sullivan would deliver the line 'getting back up on the horse'.

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Well, in the last few days since Shizuoka, and this morning in Kobe City under the guise of his new on-field commander in chief Johnny Sexton, Joe Schmidt will be looking not just to remount the horse but for an immediate response by way of an emphatic clear round.

Make no mistake, we have had our blip - one destined to live with us forever - and are now in knockout territory whereby winning alone will see us survive.

A bonus-point win this morning and nothing less is acceptable, followed by the same against the Samoans, and a place in the quarter-final (our minimum objective) will have been achieved.

The likely opposition in that knockout game is now out of our hands, although I have a sneaking suspicion it could still be the Springboks, but let us control what we can control and let everything beyond that look after itself.

Last Saturday in Shizuoka was depressing, not just because we lost (and of course that was paramount) but even more so because of the manner in which we played - or didn't if we are to be much more honest and far more accurate.

For Ireland against Scotland, read the Japanese against us. I stand open to correction here but I don't think any other team sport carries a greater emphasis on psychological preparation into the Test arena than rugby union.

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And from an Irish perspective, when we are good (as against the Scots) we are very, very good, but when we are bad (as against the host nation) we can be awful. We are black or white with little room for shades of grey.

We are now in knockout territory, albeit against the weakest team in the group, so nothing short of a five-point return is acceptable.

I would hope that Russian manager Zorik Masandilov captured the mood in the Irish camp earlier in the week when saying: "I don't think that they will feel sorry for us."

Of course, coach and former IRFU employee Mark McDermott, as well as skipper Vasily Artemyev (both ex-Blackrock schoolboys), have a more realistic handle on the pressure currently building within the Irish camp. Opportunity now knocks to diffuse that pressure and with it help restore confidence and morale to a shaken Ireland squad.

To that end, Schmidt has made a fair fist of this selection. For a number of players such as Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn and either Rhys Ruddock or Jordi Murphy, it could be their only substantial run unless injury to others dictates otherwise.

It is an entire Munster tight five, which ought to make things, albeit a level up, so much easier. Add in Peter O'Mahony and it makes for six of the Munster eight, plus CJ Stander in the replacement line-up.

The captaincy issue intrigues. Hardly a decision set to boost O'Mahony's confidence at this point in the tournament whilst a strange call too given Sexton's demeanour in the position for Leinster.

But it is what it is, with Schmidt never leaving any doubt over any decision in relation to Sexton and his on-field leadership since the Kiwi took control. Sexton represents the main man's eyes, ears and football intellect in the heat of the action.

Transferring the captaincy wouldn't be my read but I get the rationale. As for those likely to figure beyond today and on into the Samoan match in which the likely quarter-final line up will get a run?

For Scannell, opportunity knocks, although Rory Best for an hour with Sean Cronin's impact for the final quarter seems the most logical way to go, and I support that - although conceding that Scannell's lineout throwing is technically superior to either of the other two.

For Tadhg Beirne, one from Ruddock, Murphy, and also it would seem for O'Mahony there is a case to be made and form to be laid bare. I would still see O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Stander at eight as the starting back-row in the absence of the unfortunate Jack Conan, but the issue surrounding captaincy and, by extension, leadership for this morning's game has muddied the waters.

All eight backs have to be in the shake-up for selection.

It will be interesting to see if Schmidt has the luxury of giving Joey Carbery some game time in the scrum-half slot before close of play.

That said, Carbery's flexibility from 12 out will see him continue as versatility replacement and shadow out-half to Sexton ahead of Jack Carty.

I am an Andrew Conway fan, and while Keith Earls on the right with Jacob Stockdale on the left makes for the better balance, I see the dilemma for Schmidt in choosing between Conway and Larmour for that wing slot in Stockdale's absence.

The big Ulsterman is a certain starter in my book, although, much like the rest (with the possible exceptions of Ryan and Garry Ringrose), he was at best average against the host nation.

In relation to Ringrose, who travelled out as third choice centre to Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, that has been reversed with him back on top of his considerable game.

Given the issues over Chris Farrell (who has also been very good) and Henshaw, the Aki/Ringrose partnership has to be in pole position.

We are now in the land of sudden death, with little room for manoeuvre.

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