OpinionRoy Curtis

Roy Curtis: Joe Schmidt deserves scrutiny for bottling squad selection

Garry Ringrose
Garry Ringrose

Schmidt's cowardly failure to select Garry Ringrose for his Six Nations squad raises questions about the Kiwi's methods.

PERHAPS it was a fiction of the imagination, a bad dream; maybe Joe Schmidt’s botched thrust at World Cup glory was a trick of the light.

For whatever reasons, the nation appears obligated to see or hear no evil when it comes to the New Zealander, the Teflon tutor.

How else can we explain the ongoing black-out on any meaningful investigation into Schmidt’s role in the World Cup woe, the darkest hour of recent Irish rugby history?

Or the general absence of outrage this week as, with Ireland in patent need of a new white hope, Schmidt rejected the most thrilling talent since a young Brian O’Driscoll (below) came dancing over the horizon?

It is as if there is a duty to embrace the myth that Joe is without flaw, to permit the fallacy that he can do no wrong.

For sure, his back-to-back Six Nations titles have deposited a hefty wad of credits; it should not, however, insulate the coach against scrutiny or permit him immunity to prosecution.

Written in the sky over Cardiff as Ireland succumbed so tamely to Argentina was the urgency for a new beginning.

And so Schmidt ought to be subjected to the most strenuous interrogation as to why he deems Garry Ringrose not fit for purpose as Wales, and an opportunity of redemption, loom.

Instead the thumbscrews were left at home when Joe excluded the 20-year-old centre, anointed as O’Driscoll’s successor by BOD himself, from his 35-man Six Nations squad.

Schmidt’s announcement was not merely conservative or short-sighted: It was cowardly.

There was a mass exoneration of the World Cup duds on Wednesday, Jordi Murphy alone of the vast crew of autumnal underachievers to be omitted.

Schmidt was not required to defend of his inability to break the quarter-final glass ceiling at a tournament before which many had giddily imagined Ireland as potential champions. 

Nor was it demanded that he provide even the beginnings of a reason for ignoring the mesmeric Ringrose.

A supine media pack embraced the fiction that the Leinster firefly is not ready to dazzle on the international stage.

Schmidt is not merely a slave to caution in his insistence that Ringrose serves a longer apprenticeship, clocks up game time with Leinster.

Yet Ringrose is the same age as Rory McIlroy was, when in 2010 the latter announced himself as a global phenomenon with a final round 62 to win his first PGA Tour event at Quail Hollow.

He also ignores the career trajectory of the player to whom the young tyro is most frequently compared: O’Driscoll made his Irish debut – also at 20 – before he had played a single game for Leinster.

18 months ago, on the back of some jaw-dropping midfield invention at the U-20 World Cup, Ringrose was shortlisted for the IRB’s World Junior Player of the Year.

Among his fellow nominees was South Africa’s Handre Pollard.

Unlike Schmidt, the Springboks operate on the philosophy that if a player is good enough he is old enough. 

And so, Pollard was the starting out-half for South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the playmaker as Heyneke Meyer’s side pushed New Zealand to the brink in a semi-final for the ages.

Ringrose is meanwhile incarcerated as Ireland’s same-old, same-old arrive at the Six Nations starting line.

This despite a stunning body of work at Leinster, his Bolshoi footwork central to the recent revival of Leo Cullen’s side, notably their electrifying victory over Bath. 

Ringrose is an intuitive gift from the heavens, the perfect antidote to Schmidt’s risk-averse kick-chase tactics so brutally exposed as a relic of a bygone age by the adventurous, progressive Argentines.

Laughably, the coach was actually commended for including four uncapped players – CJ Stander, Stuart McCloskey, TJ Van der Flier and Ultan Dillane – in this week’s outsized squad.

Never mind that injuries and retirements compelled their introduction or that, on form, Stander and McCloskey should be automatic choices in a starting XV. 

Or that Ringrose’s power to conjure danger is the upgrade a staid Ireland require.

The refusal to shine a light on Ringrose’s absence is evidence of how Schmidt continues to bask in the afterglow of Six Nations glory.

Those who write off the loss to Argentina as the inevitable fall out of a catastrophic injury list are blind to how a full-strength side laboured against Italy and to the Pumas’ own extensive casualties.

The one occasion over the last 12 months when Ireland sparkled was against Scotland when Schmidt was compelled by the need for tries to remove the tactical straitjacket.

But he reverted to type and dismally failed autumn’s decisive examination, Ireland groped hopelessly, thrashed about as a clueless rabble. Yet the coach somehow suffered not so much as a trace of reputational damage.

He can, it seems, have his cake and eat it:  Lionised as the tactical grandmaster behind back-to-back Six Nations titles; yet absolved of responsibility for the unvarnished World Cup disaster.

If Schmidt operated in the more unforgiving theatres familiar to his football peers or was held to account like his English counterpart, Stuart Lancaster, these would be deeply uncomfortable times.

Instead Ireland remains supine, even if there is ample reason to doubt that a halo still burns golden about his saintly crown. 

Though fate dealt a cruel hand with those injuries to Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony, the World Cup was, largely, a self-inflicted disaster.

From Sean O’Brien’s cataclysmic loss of discipline to Schmidt’s guarded, one-dimensional, outdated game-plan. 

It wasn’t a trick of the imagination and the truth should no longer be diluted by the consolation prize of Six Nations glory.

So long as Ireland are prisoners of a tedious game-plan, for as long as Schmidt is unwilling to give genius his trust, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa will not merely belong in a different hemisphere.

They will be residents of another world.