Five talking points from Joe Schmidt's team announcement
As Joe Schmidt named the side to face Wales for the Six Nations opener at Aviva Stadium on Sunday, he brought an end to months of chatter as to how the chastening World Cup experience could influence his selection process.
No sweeping changes, not yet anyway
Call Joe Schmidt conservative if you will, because maybe he is. However, there is not a coach in world rugby who wouldn’t turn to whatever stalwarts were available to him in face of such a mounting injury list.
As Rob Keaney and Sean O’Brien were announced as 11th hour omissions, though hopefully not long term ones, they joined Peter O’Mahony, Ian Henderson, Marty Moore, Mike Ross, Dan Tuohy, Cian Healy and Tommy Bowe in the motley crew.
And, of course, there’s the retired Paul O’Connell. Rory Best starts life as skipper and can do so knowing that he can look to the likes of Sexton, Murray, Payne, Toner, Earls and Trimble when Wales invariable turn up the pressure. Things might look a little different next week in Paris should things go well this weekend.
CJ Stander enters the international stage as part of new-look back row
Since the Ireland squad first convened at Carton House almost a fortnight ago, much speculation centred on whether Stander would beat out Rhys Ruddick for the number six jersey that would surely be filled by Munster colleague Peter O’Mahony were it not for injury.
Schmidt has opted to reward Stander’s outstanding form over the last two seasons by handing the naturalised South African his first start in an Ireland jersey. While he lacks Ruddock’s brute force, Stander’s mobility, ball carrying and all round industry should make him a significant addition to the Irish set-up.
And, he’ll have to be. With Sean O’Brien out with an hamstring strain and Tommy O’Donnell picked in his stead at open-side, the loose forward trio is completed by Jamie Heaslip, thus this particular unit will have had little time to bed in together.
This is only compounded by the fact that they’ll be confronted with a formidable Welsh trident, in Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau; all world class, all Lions, with the former duo among the best breakdown operatives in the Northern hemisphere
Simon Zebo in for exacting examination at full-back
The Munster flier was never mentioned as possible starter at 15 this week and, instead, what we all wanted to know was if Schmidt would give the languid Jared Payne a go in what is clearly his best position, in favour of long-time incumbent Rob Kearney.
Kearney will not feature due to a hamstring issue, and Payne has been deployed elsewhere, so Zebo returns to a position he’s had mixed fortunes in when playing for his country.
He was relentlessly targeted by England’s George Ford in the World Cup warm up loss, with the Bath out-half’s probing kicks leaving the Cork native floundering at times. Zebo was twice more selected there in the World Cup with far better results, though it was against Romania and Italy.
Dan Biggar will certainly aerially bombard Zebo with a flurry of Garryowens in the early goings, so it is imperative that he's assured from the off with his fielding, otherwise he’ll be looking up at bombs all day.
Despite clamour for change, Schmidt sticks with tried and tested midfield
Along With Jared Payne, his Ulster teammate Stuart McCloskey was the focal point of the discourse on how Ireland would forge ahead and evolve following another failed bid to make a World Cup semi-final.
McCloskey’s performances for the northern province, facilitated by his ferocious physicality, searing pace and sumptuous offloads, had many convinced that there was no way that the Kiwi coach wouldn’t include him alongside Robbie Henshaw in his first starting XV of the Championship.
But Schmidt is not the type to bow to pressure from fans and media. McCloskey, of course, made the larger squad and will have been closely watched, but is not in the match-day group.
Perhaps Payne should be at full-back, but doing so would mean choosing a midfield with a debutant (McCloseky) and a player with no international experience at 13 (Henshaw).
This would be tantamount to lunacy, when considering they would be up against the tried and tested, brutish Lions paring of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. For now, caution is the right call.
Bench lacks experience in key areas
The current glut of injuries has deprived Schmidt of a plethora of tight five front-liners, so he’s been forced to promote those who are yet to make their name in the test area.
Replacement props James Cronin and Tahdg Furlong, if used, will be winning their third and fourth caps respectively. Given the that Wales can call on Gethin Jenkins and the young, but more seasoned, Tommy Francis, dictates that Furlong and Cronin could be in for the toughest test of their professional lives.
Connacht’s Kieran Marmion gets the nod as back up scrum-half in favour of Eoin Reddan. Marmion will bring genuine gas from the base of rucks that Reddan cannot but, considering that he has four caps to his name, will he offer the same level headedness and nous from such a pivotal tactical area?