You would have thought that Andy Farrell may have learnt some valuable lessons four years ago when he was an assistant coach with England?
Upsetting a group of players that have strived for four solid years towards a common goal of winning a World Cup can ultimately see you pay the price when they take to the field.
Without opening old wounds, Sam Burgess for Luther Burrell is what I am talking about. It wasn’t Burgess’ fault he got picked and by all accounts the players enjoyed having him around but ‘one of their own’ had been double crossed for someone that wasn’t ready and the perfect scapegoat had been sculpted for the media in the shape of the ex-rugby league star. Burgess wasn’t ready and the players around him knew that.
Wedges were driven in between the squad, the coaches and the Teflon shoulders of Rob Andrew. Poor performances followed and the embarrassment of an early, home exit was etched into the record books.
Roll on to the next World Cup cycle and Ireland have decided to do something very similar. Devin Toner has been dropped for a two capped South African in the form of Munster’s Jean Kleyn.
Let’s be clear here, it’s not Kleyn’s fault that he has been picked over Toner and he shouldn’t be chastised for that but, he has played the residency system cleverly and now finds himself as a potentially divisive figure within the Irish squad.
Toner has played 60 times under Schmidt since the Kiwi took over as Head Coach, that’s more than any other player. The Leinsterman is part of the furniture if you like. A popular member of the squad that will have seen this World Cup as his swansong at the age of 33. To take someone that influential out of your squad beggars’ belief.
“I’ve coached Dev for 10 years, he’s not just our line-out champion but he’s such a good player, and he’s an absolutely quality person. That was an incredibly tough conversation yesterday,” was how Schmidt responded to the media when quizzed about dropping the behemoth second row.
Mr. Schmidt, everything you have just stated there is exactly why he should be in the squad. The lineout was diabolical against England and Toner wasn’t a part of it for the best part. The set piece in the last three and half years has been up there with the best because of Toner, his second-row partner, Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony.
In a squad that you are taking to the other side of the world to win a world cup, you need quality people in and around the squad. You’ve just said yourself that Toner fits that criteria.
To link this back to another example, I believe that this is the reason that Danny Cipriani didn’t get picked for England.
No one can doubt Cipriani’s rugby ability, skill levels or match changing credentials but if he doesn’t fit the mould of a squad player, team player or however you want to dress it up, then he shouldn’t be picked. Walking around Japan for seven or eight weeks and irritating the whole squad is not good for morale and will have a negative impact.
Irish morale will undoubtedly be affected by the timing of this selection decision and with injury concerns growing, the form of their front-line players coming under scrutiny, as well as rumours of discontent within the camp, dropping Toner could be a large nail in an Irish Rugby coffin.
Schmidt now has the monumental task of galvanising a squad that will in all likelihood, not be overly impressed by the decision to drop Toner.
The captain, Rory Best, is not in form and clearly not the first-choice hooker. Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell are superior players judging on the last year of rugby and that will also be interesting to see how that situation plays out.
Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery are long term injury concerns and although they are nearly back to fitness, they will need to find sharpness in their game quicker than ever to get a faltering backline firing again.
Conor Murray is also a concern. Since his head injury earlier this season he hasn’t been the all-conquering scrumhalf of 2017 and 2018. His all action aura has dwindled and that surely can only be because of the injuries that he has sustained.
My point is that Schmidt and Farrell have enough on their plate to sort out without driving a massive curve ball at a fractured, incohesive squad. Incohesive because of injuries, strange selections and poor results. The playing staff are world class across the board but for them to perform at that level, they need a positive working environment.
Sacking one of their best mates and the man that has controlled the lineouts for the past four years is probably not the best way of creating that.