It’s hard to argue with Leinster’s record in the New Year, where winning in Newport yesterday took them to eight from nine. It is huge for the confidence and togetherness of the squad that they can continue coming first when either Ireland or Declan Kidney’s Player Management Programme have spirited half their first-choice team away. In six of those games Joe Schmidt has had to plug gaps for either of the above. And it’s tipping away nicely.
What we would like to see change however is the policy of playing Fergus McFadden at 12 and Eoin O’Malley at 13, rather than the other way round. This has implications for Ireland as well as Leinster.
McFadden first popped up on the radar of the average fan when he got the MVP award in the Churchill Cup in 2009. By that stage he was in his third year with Leinster and gradually getting more game time. Pretty much all of it was channelled down the outside centre route.
In short he became the filler-in for Brian O’Driscoll. The best bit was that he would bring his kicking boots with him. People forget now how good a kicker McFadden can be but there was a period in Leinster last season when he was a likely alternative to Jonny Sexton.
Then Joe Schmidt handed the goal-kicking gig to Isa Nacewa, when Sexton wasn’t there – Nacewa has improved hugely from the early days when there was a Row Z vibe to his action – and McFadden now only gets the odd look-in. Yes, McFadden was carrying an injury at the start of the season which prevented him from goal-kicking but at 66% Nacewa is still not front line on the accuracy front.
McFadden is only 55% but then we’re talking six kicks from 11 attempts while Nacewa’s return is from 73 shots. For a goal-kicker, frequency is everything. And McFadden’s time on the ball is far from that.
At least he’s getting plenty of that when Schmidt plays him at inside centre, but why not run him at 13? We suspect it’s because the coach wants a more robust presence coming down that line. And he gets that from McFadden, who may be a tadpole when compared to some of the big fish who swim that channel but he makes every pound count.
He has more experience too than Eoin O’Malley, and neither does he have the injury baggage that his partner has in the background. So Schmidt weighed it all up and plumped for McFadden at 12. You have to go back to the Wembley game against Saracens in October for the last time McFadden got a run in the 13 slot, and that was coming off the bench – which he did very effectively, playing a key role in the winning score.
With intrusions from Ireland Schmidt doesn’t have much consistency in his selection. More than 50 players have been used so far in the Magners League. So the idea of having the same midfield for two games running is a luxury for him. And that too plays a part in keeping McFadden at 12 and O’Malley at 13 – it represents continuity.
That was the way they started and that’s the way it’s continuing.
But Declan Kidney will have to pick a team to play four RWC warm-up games in August and another four pool games in the tournament proper in September. And he won’t be featuring Brian O’Driscoll in all of those. We think McFadden is the perfect stand-in. But he needs to spend more time on the job.