December 17, 2017, 4:52

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for autumn series – the major talking points

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for autumn series – the major talking points

Joe Schmidt has picked the biggest squad of the lot going with 38 players for Ireland’s three November Tests, but his selections are still riddled with surprises.

England picked 34 players, Scotland 36 and Wales 36, so Schmidt has gone with two players more than most, but even with that there are some big bombshells.

Ireland host South Africa, Fiji and Argentina on successive Saturdays from November 11, all live on Sky Sports Action.

Here’s our take on the major talking points from Schmidt’s latest squad…

Simon Zebo

The headline news from this squad is undoubtedly the exclusion of Munster full-back Simon Zebo.

Having been a mainstay of the Ireland XV for the last two years, news broke on Monday that he had opted to leave Munster at the end of the current season to join a Top 14 club, understood to be Racing 92.

His decision to exit and potentially sacrifice a place at the 2019 Rugby World Cup came as a surprise to most, particularly as he had featured so prominently in green during 2016 and 2017.

Zebo played in every game of the 2017 Six Nations, featured in all but one in the 2016 Six Nations, faced the All Blacks (twice) and Australia last November, and even toured the USA and Japan during the summer.

It has been widely speculated that once he left he would no longer be selected by Schmidt, but the Ireland boss’ decision to cull Zebo a full seven months before he leaves the country, irrespective of his good form, sends a brutal message.

Indeed it suggests a hard-line stance whereby choosing to leave the provinces all but ends your international career.

The fact we are less than two seasons out from a World Cup would not have helped the Munsterman’s case either.

Centre choices

An area of the squad which has caused a wide degree of head-scratching has come in Schmidt’s centre selections.

Heading into November Ireland knew they would be without Garry Ringrose, who should make his return from shoulder surgery in December, and Jared Payne, who has yet to play for Ulster since returning from the Lions tour due to headaches.

Therefore there was always going to be some fairly new blood introduced. While Schmidt has selected a large 38-man squad, however, and picked lavishly in most positions, he was only called up four centres, two of which are uncapped.

Robbie Henshaw was always going to be selected, but alongside him is Ulster’s in-from Stuart McCloskey, who will finally get the chance to build on his one cap, Connacht’s now Irish-qualified Bundee Aki and Munster’s new signing Chris Farrell.

Despite Rory Scannell’s strong form at inside-centre for Munster, he is left out completely and can count himself as extremely unlucky. His omission suggests Schmidt will focus more on physicality and a carrying based game in midfield.

Ulster’s Luke Marshall is also massively unfortunate to have missed out altogether. Who will come in to start alongside Henshaw?

Aki and Henshaw could reignite the Connacht partnership which sealed the 2016 PRO12 crown, McCloskey could come in as a potential crash-ball option at 12 with Henshaw shifting out one, or Farrell could come in at 13, leaving Henshaw to play at inside-centre where Schmidt has used him most.

Back Three

Another area of Schmidt’s squad which has thrown up some shocks is in the backline.

As well as the omission of Zebo, Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran is ignored despite his strong form over the last few seasons.

His non-selection is all the more surprising given that he would have been considered a prime candidate to try and force his way into the back three in Zebo’s absence.

At the other end of the spectrum Dave Kearney earns a surprise recall, along with his brother Rob.

Indeed Rob Kearney is the only out-and-out full-back chosen despite the fact he has only played twice this season and is due to return from a knee injury against Ulster this weekend.

Andrew Conway appears the only other full-back option at this point, though Jacob Stockdale could potentially be shifted off the wing. But there are just five international caps between them.

Dave Kearney has only started three games this season, the last of which came in September, and hasn’t played for Ireland since February 2016. His recall is one few envisaged.

Aside from Munster wing Keith Earls, the rest of the back three picks are vastly inexperienced.

Leinster’s Adam Byrne and Munster’s Darren Sweetnam are uncapped, while Ulster’s Stockdale currently has two caps and Conway three. The World Cup is, without question, in Schmidt’s thoughts.

Hooker

The final surprise element to Schmidt’s autumn Test squad comes at hooker.

Captain Rory Best will again in all likelihood lead Ireland, but Schmidt’s first choice replacement of last season, Niall Scannell, is absent due to a thumb injury suffered in Munster’s draw with Castres.

Scannell’s absence was assumed to be offset by the availability of Leinster’s Sean Cronin, who most predicted would step into the No 16 jersey.

But Schmidt has left Cronin out entirely and gone with Leinster’s James Tracy, who was behind both Best and Scannell last season, and Ulster’s Rob Herring, whose only cap to date came in June 2014.

At 35-years-old Best will almost certainly not last 80 minutes anymore, and without the ballast and pace of Cronin off the bench, who of Tracy and Herring will stand up and potentially make a name for themselves?

Leaving Cronin out was another selection decision not many saw coming.

Sourse: skysports.com

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