'Schmidt reverts to type and Jackson remains in exile' - Main talking points from Ireland's team selection
If there was any notion that Joe Schmidt could be swayed by public opinion or outcry, it was duly extinguished as he announced the Ireland team to play Italy.
Precedent trumps ambition, again
The subject became all the more poignant when it emerged that Rob Kearney had aggravated an on-going hamstring issue, but Jared Payne was once more non-committal when grilled as to what his preferred position is.
Injured for Ireland’s loss to England in Twickenham, Payne admitted to being impressed by the midfield pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw that was cobbled together in his absence.
It was thought or perhaps hoped, that Schmidt would retain the promising midfield combination and allow Payne slot into full-back, where he impressed so much in the Champions Cup for Ulster.
Payne resumes his place at second centre as Henshaw dons the 12 jersey again, with Simon Zebo getting the nod at full back which, to be fair, is a far from conservative inclusion.
Ultan Dillane must settle for another cameo
As one of three debutants in Twickenham, Dillane announced himself on the Test stage with a performance of courage and dynamism. The Kerry native’s athleticism was on full display as he made a number of surging bursts into England’s 22.
Again, there was a misplaced consensus that his showing would earn him a promotion to the starting XV. Donnacha Ryan and Devon Toner remain, yet Dillane may prove a more potent threat around the hour mark when the Italians notoriously begin to tire.
Back row depth a beacon of hope
There is no side in the world that would not suffer for the absence of Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and, latterly, Sean O’Brien. He may not have made the bench for Saturday but Tommy O’Donnell has never let the side down when called upon thus far, and could rightly feel aggrieved for losing out to Rhys Ruddock.
Then there’s CJ Stander, who has arguably been Ireland’s player of the tournament and proved beyond reasonable doubt that those in his home country were completely mistaken when telling him he did not have the physical dimensions for test rugby.
Josh Van Der Flier, too, will be deemed a find and after an admirable debut in Twickenham he has kept his spot at open side, at the expense of those with far more experience.
Two selections in the replacements immediately catch the eye. Schmidt, again, cited versatility for picking Ian Madigan ahead of Paddy Jackson as deputy to Jonathan Sexton.
In a season where he has provided a series of fine displays for Ulster, some as captain, Jackson must be wondering what he must to do to be called upon.
The second is Fergus McFadden. It’s difficult to envisage a circumstance where the Leinster utility back could provide a greater impact than McCloskey, who drops out of the squad altogether.
McFadden is an honest and aggressive operator but lacks both the pace and guile to meaningfully alter a Test match.
Although brought about by Eoin Reddan’s injury, the thought of Kieran Marmion winning a fifth cap is encouraging. The Connacht scrum half’s searing pace around the fringes could well vex the Italians.
Sean Cronin’s return as replacement hooker, in tandem with Dillane, Marmion and Cian Healy, can provide Ireland with a real thrust in the latter stages of a game they simply must win.
Palpable fear of failure
There’s no question that a laundry list of injuries have conspired against Ireland in a Championship that they had targeted to clinch for the third time in a row. But so has an increasing propensity for error and a patent lack of imagination.
Even in Schmidt’s worst hypothetical doomsday scenario, there is no way he would have conceived of Ireland going in to round four winless. But that’s the case and, possibly, a reason to forgive his conservatism.
As much as circumstance has permitted him, he’s reverted to the core of players who have been ubiquitous during his tenure in a bid turnover an Italian outfit Ireland were lucky to put way in the World Cup. One feels another loss would break the brittle confidence of this group.
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