It’s an ill wind and all that, but the loosening of Ireland’s grip on the Six Nations has given Joe Schmidt the elbow room to blood new players in the remainder of the tournament.
Whether one or more comes into the frame for next Saturday’s clash against unbeaten leaders England at Twickenham will likely be dictated by the fitness and availability of players such as Jared Payne. But with Mike McCarthy, Seán O’Brien and Dave Kearney ruled out of the tournament through injury – in McCarthy’s case for the rest of the season – the aforementioned uncapped trio were all part of the 15 players kept back for yesterday’s open session in Schmidt’s old haunt of Mullingar and not released back to their provinces.
“I think you will see guys over the next three games that you probably haven’t seen in the tournament so far, ” said Schmidt. “I don’t know which of the games or which number of the games but in the last two Six Nations we have been hanging in, tooth and nail, fighting for the wins that we needed or the [points] differential that we needed.
Long shot“We haven’t been in this position where mathematically we have a chance but realistically the chance is a long shot, and where we actually get a window of opportunity to maybe blood a few new guys and chase results at the same time.
“I don’t think it is going to change our outlook in what we want to achieve but it is going to give us an opportunity to maybe look at a few guys like the big fella there and a few others.”
The “big fella” is 23-year-old McCloskey – and what he offers the midfield in terms of size. He is 1.92m (6ft 2½in) and weighs at 109kg (17st 2lb).
“He is actually bigger than all our loose forwards as well, ” Schmidt said. “He has been working on a few things even post-training with us and we are seeing some good reward from that.”
The athletic 1.98m (6ft 6in) Dillane (22) is likely to at least feature on the bench in Twickenham, given that McCarthy has been advised to abandon a return to playing action this season – a worrying development in the light of the concussion he suffered in Paris.
“Mike McCarthy has seen a specialist now and he’s going to effectively recondition himself, freshen himself up to kickstart next season now, ” Schmidt said.
The Paris-born Dillane, whose father is from the Ivory Coast, is a product of Tralee RFC after his family relocated to his mother’s home town when he was four. He is now one of only three secondrows in the squad along with Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan.
Tiny marginsSchmidt said the difference between Ireland not being in the forefront of the title race again was down to tiny margins, but he accepted that Ireland lacked accuracy.
“A couple of times that we opened them up, we were fading on the ball all the time. I thought it was really poor that we didn’t make sure that we didn’t convert a couple of chances, ” he said.
Accepting that the first-half “try” by Dave Kearney in Paris was as much a product of this inaccuracy as the officials’ failure to refer the incident to video, Schmidt said: “The decisions, the accuracy, the timing, the quality of the transfer, they are all elements that are moving parts that you try and get synchronised as possible.
“We haven’t quite been synchronised enough or made quite the right decisions at the right times, because of something physically; you may not have the same power or strength as your opponent, there’s a challenge for us to be even more accurate if we can be.”
Schmidt also confirmed that Cian Healy and Mike Ross had trained with the Irish squad on Thursday and said they would be in contention for the Twickenham game.
Schmidt’s love affair with Ireland began as a player-coach with Mullingar in the 1990s.
“It’s the same weather, ” Schmidt said ironically about the blustery wet conditions outside, “but the same warmth. We have been incredibly overwhelmed and it has been probably a timely midlands visit for us because inevitably when the expectations are high and we have high expectations of ourselves, because we want to be competing at the top end, last weekend our disappointment was very difficult to take.
“And to come here and see the enthusiasm and the incredible positivity of the people that are the genuine supporters has been uplifting.”
He hopes this would provide “a spring in our step going into Monday and Tuesday’s training, because I don’t think you can go to England and expect to win unless you have a degree of enthusiasm, excitement, positivity and confidence in yourselves. ”