Tony Ward: McCloskey ready to man barricades in defining game
Published 23/02/2016 | 02:30
While it's been a case of fine margins so far for Ireland, it's difficult to argue that the table lies after two games in this year's Six Nations. The picture should be even more definitive on Saturday evening, following Friday's game in Cardiff and our clash with England at Twickenham.
I expect the Welsh to beat the French and the English under Eddie Jones to take care of us. Can we win in London? Of course we can, that is the nature of this competition and most particularly at this point as European rugby's finest look to re-establish themselves after the pummelling they took at the World Cup.
Against the Welsh, we got a draw that we probably just about deserved. Against the French, we lost by the narrowest of margins but an even split might have been the fairer outcome in that one too. Guy Noves is talking the type of game we all want to see the French deliver but so far - even against the Italians - the evidence is not yet clear.
Eddie Jones, to be fair, is being much more pragmatic in that he is talking up and playing to traditional English strengths but behind closed doors we suspect that there's a box of attacking dynamite waiting to explode.
Whereas the Welsh, while settled, continue to be one-dimensional, England appear to have the most balanced unit with the greatest attacking potential of the six teams. They hinted at it in the second half in Rome but weren't good in the first half and that's what Joe Schmidt will be focusing on this week.
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Realistically, the dream of a third Six Nations on the bounce for Ireland seems to be gone already. We have been brave to a fault and whatever else the players cannot be questioned in terms of commitment. England will be red-hot favourites with just about everybody ahead of Saturday's showdown but where there is life there is hope and certainly Rory Best and company will not be travelling to make up the numbers.
A win in London would shake things up considerably. And while dependent on results elsewhere, with the Italians and Scots to come in Dublin in the last two games, the seemingly impossible could become very possible in the run-in.
Such will be the mindset of Ireland's coach and players going into the definitive match for us in this Six Nations tournament.
The main problem for the Irish head coach ahead of revealing his hand for London is the ever-mounting list of injuries. Sean O'Brien, Dave Kearney and Mike McCarthy have all been added to the casualties post-Paris with grave doubts over Jared Payne too.
The initial word on Payne was a dead leg or haematoma which being superficial would certainly have healed in time. It's now been diagnosed as a hamstring issue and depending on the severity I would be much less optimistic about him lining out.
So where to from here? Let me start by saying that change for the sake of change is never a rational or constructive alternative.
That said, though, there is very definite room for manoeuvre. Blooding a new player and improving the team are not mutually exclusive. It is easy on the outside suggesting wholesale changes. Yes, in an ideal world I would love to see an Irish match-day squad right now containing the likes of Matt Healy, Garry Ringrose, Tiernan O'Halloran, Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane, Denis Buckley, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, even though the latter is just one game back after long-term injury but that will not happen, nor should it.
The coach is in the unique position - and this is one of Schmidt's greatest strengths - to observe individuals and combinations behind closed doors in full-on training. Of course it is not the same as the match situation. How could it be? But it means he has an up-to-date insight that no one else can have.
So let's be specific. Jack McGrath has done enough to warrant re-selection in a front-row that could see a change at tighthead where Mike Ross will most likely return from the start.
In the second-row, Donnacha Ryan is the most likely replacement alongside Devin Toner with Dillane, I hope, set to make his full international debut off the bench and I buy that.
In the back-row in the enforced absence of O'Brien, I would go with Tommy O'Donnell in a straight swap but I would have recalled Chris Henry to the bench as a horses-for-courses selection.
The half-backs would remain the same with Henshaw moving one slot out, thereby making way for McCloskey's inclusion from the off. Unless Schmidt has spotted some gaping deficiency in the Ulster man's make-up in training then if ever an opportunity was earned this surely is it.
If Payne is fit and firing - which I doubt given the nature of the injury - then he deserves the opportunity in his favoured full-back position ahead of Rob Kearney on current form.
However, if declared fit I suspect Schmidt will keep his declared centre partnership of Henshaw and Payne in situ.
Matt Healy is not yet ready for a challenge of this intensity but he is the best out-and-out attacking winger in Irish rugby. Only Craig Gilroy comes close in that respect. With Dave Kearney ruled out through injury (player protection I ask you), it will be a straight call between Keith Earls and Simon Zebo for the left wing with the latter more likely to get the nod based on World Cup form.