Sunday 11 December 2016

Breaking down Joe Schmidt's options ahead of first test against New Zealand

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Chicago

Published 01/11/2016 | 02:30

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Picture: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Picture: Sportsfile
Conor Murray with Aer Lingus captain Eamonn Troy and first officer Adam Carter ahead of the Irish rugby team’s flight to Chicago yesterday. Photo: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Joe Schmidt's selection picture got a lot clearer as the Ireland team left Dublin Airport for Chicago and left five key players back home.

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The coach already knew that Keith Earls would not be available, while Iain Henderson's absence was well flagged, but the decision to omit Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien from the 27-man travelling party was a surprise.

Against New Zealand, there is no room for weakness and the head coach clearly decided that for all their work to get back to fitness in recent weeks the back-rows need more time before they can take on the world champions.

Paddy Jackson didn't travel due to personal reasons.

So, the field has been narrowed ahead of Ireland's attempt at beating the world champions for the first time and ending their record-breaking run of victories at the same time.

The Back three

Options: Rob Kearney, Jared Payne, Simon Zebo, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy

Schmidt has always picked Kearney at full-back when fit but the emergence of Ringrose and form of Payne has put the Louth man under pressure.

Kiwi Payne was held back from action last week and is a definite starter, with the only question whether he lines out in the No 13 or No 15 shirt against the country of his birth.

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Rob Kearney in action for Ireland

The Ulster star started at full-back in the first two Tests in South Africa last summer, before injury ruled him out of the decider.

He was excellent on both occasions, particularly in attack during the win over the Springboks in Cape Town, and offers so much in attack.

With Earls out, the wing positions look likely to go to Trimble and Zebo, and the Munster man's left-foot ability further lessens the reliance on Kearney, who may have to make do with a place on the bench.

Likely lads: Payne, Trimble, Zebo

Centres

Options: Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Jared Payne

Henshaw is guaranteed to start at inside-centre, with the big question whether Schmidt goes for the tried and trusted combination of the Athlone man and Payne or elevates his Leinster partnership with Ringrose to the highest level.

Since they were first paired together in 2014, Henshaw and Payne has been the New Zealander's preferred option but Ringrose's form is excellent and, after shadowing the senior men for a season, he looks ready for the step up.

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New Zealand's No 13 Anton Lienert Brown is the same age as Ringrose and has a similar level of provincial experience, so there is nothing to fear on that level.

Ringrose looks ready, and Schmidt may have concluded that there's only one way to find out.

Likely lads: Henshaw, Ringrose

Half-backs

Options: Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath

Sexton and Murray are guaranteed to start, while Carbery is the only back-up No 10, so the main question is whether Connacht's Marmion or Leinster's uncapped McGrath cover the Munster man from the bench.

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Marmion looks the more likely option given his involvement in previous squads, but Schmidt's decision to include three scrum-halves is curious, given that he has only picked two hookers.

Likely lads: Murray, Sexton

Front-row

Options: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham, John Ryan

The front-row hierarchy looks pretty clear after the weekend's action, with McGrath, Best and Furlong set to start after sitting out the inter-provincial matches, with Healy, Cronin and Bealham providing cover off the bench.

John Ryan looks like he's making the trip as cover and for valuable experience.

Likely lads: McGrath, Best, Furlong

Second-row

Options: Devin Toner, Ultan Dillane, Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland

Toner is nailed on to start, and the big decision for Schmidt here is who joins him in the engine room.

Up until now, Dillane has been an impact option but the Connacht man was given a rest last weekend, which could indicate that the coach is looking for his athleticism from the start, while introducing Ryan's experience off the bench.

However, he could equally look for the Tipperary man's strengths during the first half before bringing Dillane on as the All Blacks bring on their bench and increase the tempo.

It's a tight call, but the pace and impact of the New Zealand replacements could swing it Ryan's way.

Likely lads: Toner, Ryan

Back-row

Options: CJ Stander, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip, Josh van der Flier

With O'Brien and O'Mahony left to stew over their omissions at home, Stander and Heaslip are guaranteed starters as Murphy and Van der Flier battle it out for the No 7 shirt.

Van der Flier is ahead in the Leinster pecking order, but Murphy is the incumbent after starting the first and third Tests in South Africa and playing well.

In particular, his defensive shift in that Cape Town win when Ireland were down to 14 men stood out and his engine could be required against the attacking might of the rampant All Blacks.

Van der Flier was involved off the bench for Leinster on Saturday and could be set for a similar role at Soldier Field.

Likely lads: Stander, Murphy, Heaslip

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