Analysis: Who should Joe Schmidt select in place of the suspended CJ Stander for South Africa showdown?
It is, by now, almost laughable how often Joe Schmidt must alter his plans to navigate the injury hex blighting Ireland for the better part of a year so, perhaps, CJ Stander’s suspension for the second Test against South Africa is less of the conundrum it might have been in times gone by.
For the sake of clarity, Joe Schmidt has almost certainly decided on the XV he will send out in search of a first ever series win in South Africa but, for the sake of speculation, it is worth discussing how the Kiwi may recalibrate the back five of the scrum in Stander’s absence.
The unexpected victory over the hosts was a timely reminder of what this group are capable of and, as such, if only one change were made to the side that emerged with the 26-20 win, few gripes could be had.
Allister Coetzee’s nascent Springbok project have promised a robust response in Johannesburg which, given how disjointed and uneven they looked last Saturday, will probably manifest in a ferocious physicality.
Since debuting against Wales in this year’s championship, Stander has proven an equally explosive ball carrier on the international stage as he has been for Munster over the last three years.
Combining the yardage he guarantees with a Trojan work ethic in defence, the naturalised former farmer is likely to mature into a world class back row in the very near future.
Even without Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry and Tommy O’Donnell, Ireland are not without options, and formidable ones to boot.
The most obvious solution would be to move Iain Henderson from the engine room to the blindside, where he has performed brilliantly for Ulster this season, and then slot in either Donnacha Ryan or Ultan Dillane at lock.
Breaking up Henderson's partnership with Devin Toner may not appeal to Schmidt, nor would the prospect of losing the young Connacht lock’s impact off the bench.
Ryan, as the evidence tells us, would not be found wanting should the battle in the trenches descend into the unsavoury, and the Tipp man can also double up as competent number six.
The Kiwi coach is on record as saying that Henderson is most effective in the second row, and the former Leinster boss does not have a reputation for blurting throwaway statements.
It would not be a like-for-like swap but Rhys Ruddock is amply qualified to deputise for Stander. The Leinster man is not as dynamic with ball in hand, but he offers a brute strength and ballast that could be the more favourable attribute in the heat of the battle.
Furthermore, he has played under Schmidt at club and Test level for the better part of six years, and will carry out his assignment assiduously.
Promoting Ruddock from the bench would likely see Ryan take his spot as a replacement number six and, should disaster strike, at lock, too.
The chances of the uncapped Quinn Roux and Sean Ready being cast into such a crucible are, at best, improbable.
So there it is, or maybe not. Relieve Henderson of the grubby side of second row play and allow him roam free as a bestriding wing forward or, more likely, call on the grizzled Ruddock and assign him to the vanguard of what promises to be an attritional affair.
What would you do?