Rugby Union

Tony Ward: 'Joe Schmidt must forget about Conor Murray this month, he's far too important to risk '

Between today and this day next year, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland will definitely play 17 Test matches, probably 18, and possibly as many as 20.

Starting this evening with Italy, the opposition in the first of four November games, the Six Nations will then follow in February when England come to town.

Next up will be four August World Cup warm-ups – two against the Welsh, a second against the English and the Italians too for a third encounter in early August.

Pool matches against the Scots, Samoans, Russians and Japanese will then slot into place at the World Cup in September/October with a place in the quarter-final and a tilt at the Kiwis or Springboks (preferably the latter) our minimal aim.

Make it through to the semi-final for the first time and there are two more matches (a final or 3rd/4th play-off) guaranteed.

By any stretch it is some schedule and, much like my colleague David Kelly, I have reservations about today’s clash in the Soldier Field allied to the meeting of the Welsh and Scots in Cardiff. Both are unashamed money-grabbing ventures and let nobody pretend otherwise.

There was a time when four Five Nations games on top of a pre-Christmas touring game represented a bonanza for the Ireland players central to it.

The possibility of earning five caps in a season was almost too much to take in.

So without losing the run of ourselves, I think 18 Test matches between today and October 19/20 (World Cup quarter-final) look a distinct possibility.

As an aside, that number is just one shy of my lot pebbled together over a decade between 1978 and 1987. I’m not complaining, just highlighting the contrast between now and then.

While the motive behind today’s game in Chicago sticks in the craw, I like the November series and to be fair to our southern hemisphere brethren they seldom travel short on heavy artillery.

The November games against non-Six Nations opposition whets the appetite for what comes post-Christmas.

When the head coach has to delay departure to the US to prepare the core of the squad set to take on the Pumas in seven days’ time, I think that speaks for itself.

That is no reflection on Joe Schmidt. But let’s park the cynicism and concentrate on what today and the next three fixtures look set to offer.

For the team named opportunity knocks, although it’s difficult to see Quinn Roux jumping ahead of Tadhg Beirne, Devin Toner, James Ryan or Iain Henderson in the second-row pecking order.

That said, Schmidt does operate in the here and now without being in any way oblivious to what went before. This month does matter in the context of what lies ahead.

Much has been written about Conor Murray, who along with Johnny Sexton is our most prized asset.

I don’t often disagree with Ronan O’Gara but I do not share the view gathering undue momentum that if declared medically and physically fit the Munster scrum-half (along with Aaron Smith the best in the world), should be included in the 23 to face the All Blacks.

I do not have the experience of life as a professional rugby player but I’ll take some convincing that physical fitness comes remotely close to match fitness at club/provincial level, never mind international level and against the best in the world.

I think it is a ludicrous assertion that he is ready because he is “in camp”.

What’s more, were Murray to be named on the basis of some psychological battle between Schmidt and Steve Hansen, suffice to say the consequences of an unnecessary risk could be devastating.

The final November game against the US or England at the Aviva in February is when our greatest No 9 should next see green.

Were he to be picked to face the All Blacks (as Simon Easterby, amongst others, seems to be hinting) then what message does that send to those scrum-halves next in line? Specifically Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney – in that order.

This month should be about establishing the pecking order as back-up to Murray, who is by some distance our number one.

They each know that and are well aware of the opportunity to battle for the shadow position the November series offers.

Like almost everybody I would love to see a fully-fit Murray line out alongside Sexton on November 17 but given the background and circumstances in the build-up, to play the Limerick man would be fraught with danger.

Whatever about being physically ready (and even that I question), he is nowhere close to the mental or psychological degree of sharpness required after four months on the sideline. How could it be otherwise?

Of course I want us to beat the All Blacks (what a boost that could prove ahead of Japan) but this is the time for common sense to prevail with Marmion, McGrath or Cooney the logical selection and Murray the RWC ace up the sleeve irrespective of the outcome in Dublin.

I assume that Schmidt has been at pains to point out the importance of these four games to the three next in line.

For McGrath in particular, opportunity knocks. It may be ‘only’ Italy in a plastic friendly designed for the diaspora to do their bit, but on a personal level this is probably the biggest game of his scrum-half career to date.

He is an excellent box-kicker and not afraid to use that more high-risk ‘dink’ over scrum, ruck or maul.

He is also a brilliant sniper, probably the best of the three, which is Murray’s least threatening asset.

There is also a fundamental selflessness about his game that cannot but be admired, a trait I have no doubt that is particularly appreciated by this head coach.

November should be about McGrath, Marmion and Cooney, not forgetting Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne too.

Fully-fit and firing, Murray and Sexton will lead the charge in Japan with the challenge to get the replacement half-back pairing in place for our Six Nations defence.

So while in general terms the principle behind today’s game reeks, the run-on 15 is the most exciting I can recall in a generation.

It is not our strongest but certainly our most dynamic and potentially our most explosive with the bench not too shabby either.

‘Excited’ has been the word repeatedly used by the selector in chief since revealing the 23 to kick-start the series on Thursday.

It was noticeably qualified with him pointing to “a really competitive side” embracing a bit of catch-up and opportunity.

In the Schmidt lexicon that is a potent mix. The Italians won’t be any pushover, however a current World Rugby ranking of 14 (behind Fiji, Japan, Tonga and Georgia) is unacceptable to a full-time professional set-up and national team that has been part of the Six Nations since the turn of the Millennium. Take Italy to perform but Ireland to prevail hopefully with panache.

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