Stick or twist - Joe Schmidt's selection dilemma for second test against All Blacks
Published 15/11/2016 | 02:30
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday's win over Canada, Joe Schmidt was reluctant to rush any judgment over his selection for the coming rematch against New Zealand.
By now, the Ireland coach will have pulled apart the tape and moved closer to a decision on the make-up of the 23-man squad that will take the field to face the All Blacks.
At the heart of his decision is a fundamental choice: stick or twist.
Twenty-two of the players who made history in Chicago are fit and available for selection, 14 of those were rested for the weekend's facile win over Canada.
Although he was hesitant about divulging too much, Schmidt did indicate there are three areas where he is considering change.
"Back-row, back three, even front-row, there's some tough decisions," he said. "We'll get together and sort those out and we'll announce the squad on Thursday and will have been really, really closely looked at.
"Hopefully it will be the right squad to give the All Blacks another really good game."
Those are the main areas, but Iain Henderson's return to fitness could see change extend to the second-row, while the bench is also ripe to be altered.
Conventional wisdom would see him sticking with a winning team but Schmidt knows that the inevitable New Zealand improvement means his side will need to be better for the rematch.
The same again won't cut it.
Jordi Murphy's misfortune means there is guaranteed to be one change to the team that defeated New Zealand in Chicago.
Josh van der Flier came on for his luckless Leinster colleague at Soldier Field and was one of Ireland's top tacklers despite only getting 56 minutes on the field.
That contribution drew praise from Schmidt who opted to rest the UCD man for the clash with Canada, a move that allowed Sean O'Brien an opportunity to impress.
O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony were stung by their omission from the travelling party two weeks ago and are two games further along in their recoveries, yet one of them is likely to miss out altogether this weekend given CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip's performances in the famous win.
O'Mahony got through 80 minutes while O'Brien was withdrawn which could be a sign that the Leinster man has the edge, but he took on more ball as the stand-in captain had a more play-making role, while he also took up more defensive slack and lineout work.
"We'll try to make sure that any decisions we make are based on as much of the evidence as we see," Schmidt said.
"There are tight calls and we may go for a certain combination or certain strengths we feel we're going to need.
"One guy's a better lineout player and one guy who's better on the floor; one guy who is really strong in the scrum or one guy who is a super tackler. It just depends on what we think we're going to need."
Stick: Stander, Van der Flier, Heaslip
Twist: Stander, O'Brien, Heaslip
After doing a job on New Zealand's lineout, there will be a temptation to keep Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner's partnership intact, with Ultan Dillane unleashed off the bench.
But the Kerry man's performance against Canada suggested he may be ready for increased involvement, while Henderson's return to fitness throws another option Schmidt's way.
During this year's Six Nations and on the South Africa tour, the preferred combination was Henderson and Toner with Dillane on the bench, but Ryan's work around the maul is in his favour.
Undoubtedly, Dillane and Henderson are the more explosive players who could be asked to take the game to the All Blacks but there is also the conditions to factor in with the forecast for rain on Saturday.
Stick: Ryan, Toner
Twist: Henderson, Toner
Schmidt raised some eyebrows when he mentioned the dilemmas that await him in the front-row, where Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong performed so well at Soldier Field.
Yet, Cian Healy's destructive approach to the Canadian defence in Saturday's game may have turned the coach's head.
The loosehead made 17 carries in the 61 minutes he was on the field, relentlessly getting over the gainline with hard, powerful carries.
It would be very hard on McGrath were the coach to change things up, but there are few players in the world who can offer what the Clontarf native does around the park. It shouldn't be forgotten that he got the nod for last year's World Cup quarter-final despite McGrath being in better form.
Any other changes to the front-row would be a major surprise.
Stick: McGrath, Best, Furlong
Twist: Healy, Best, Furlong
Simon Zebo had the game of his life in Chicago, but Keith Earls' aggressive performance against Canada put him firmly in the selection frame.
Earls has been an automatic pick when available and would probably have started in Chicago had he not been suspended and with four clean breaks, a try and 89m carried he reminded his coach of his quality at the Aviva Stadium.
Stick: Kearney, Trimble, Zebo
Twist: Kearney, Trimble, Earls
If he doesn't make it into the team, Earls could dislodge last Saturday's debutant Garry Ringrose on the bench, while Paddy Jackson is certain to replace Joey Carbery.
The forward replacements depend on the starting XV.