'Young guns, front row power and Jackson snub' - 5 talking points from Ireland team announcement
Just when it seemed we had Joe Schmidt figured out, the Irish coach names a side infused with fresh blood to take on England at Twickenham.
Coach shows tempered ambition and calls on the young guns
While a constant stream of injuries may have forced his hand here, Schmidt has selected two debutants in is starting XV, with a third uncapped youngster on the bench. In electing to start Josh Van Der Flier at open side flanker as supposed to the in form Tommy O’Donnell, it looks as though the former Leinster boss has recognised the break down as an area Ireland can gain the upper hand, provided they deploy the right type of ground specialist.
With defensive linchpin Jared Payne out with injury, the easy, conservative option would have been to move the fit again Keith Earls into second centre as he did in the World Cup. But, instead, the coach has picked the imposing but callow Stuart McCloskey at 12 and, in turn, asked Robbie Henshaw to play at 13 for the first time at this level.
Ultan Dillane has been a beneficiary of Ireland’s dearth of locks and should see game time at some point. His athleticism can bring a welcome and notable impact.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire for Josh Van Der Flier
What a time and set of circumstances for Josh Van Der Flier to be handed his international debut. The Leinster tyro is new to a squad that is possibly still seeking to rediscover its identity, and chasing a first win of the season at the fortress of English rugby. And, of course, he is being asked to slot in for one of the side’s bone fide totems. No pressure then.
In an ultra impressive breakout season for Leinster, Van Der Flier has made three starts and two cameos from the bench in the failed Champions Cup campaign and, in the Pro 12, the Wesley College man has lined out on nine occasions, starting all but twice. As such, he knows full well what’s required of a player stepping into the considerable boots of The Tullow Tank.
Schmidt has evidently decided to avail of Van Der Flier’s potency at the breakdown, which truly belies his 22 years. He’s been with larger group for the last month and has obviously compelled the Kiwi to give him a shot.
While Tommy O’Donnell has barely put a foot wrong in replacing Sean O’Brien in the Championship to date, he may not have the requisite poaching skills to exploit what is a muscular if blunt English back row. The dynamic Van Der Flier, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip can conjure will make for interesting viewing.
A welcome return of the front row stalwarts
Without trivialising the efforts of Nathan White and Tadhg Furlong, there must have been a seismic sigh of relief emanating from the Irish rugby collective when Schmidt confirmed that Mike Ross would be donning the number three jersey.
It’s no secret that the Irish scrum has creaked to huge, game changing consequences in the opening two rounds. The tries of Taulupe Faletau and Maxime Medard provide cold, hard of evidence to that effect.
With no Marty Moore to call on, Ross’ absence has been even more acutely felt. But he’s back, and ready to do battle with his old foe Joe Marler. The Cork man has played just 78 minutes of rugby since last December, but is a player who does not need excessive game time to get back to full throttle, and the Irish set piece should be infinitely improved by his presence.
With Cian Healy also back in the fray, albeit from the bench, Ireland now have his ball-carrying ballast and all round ferocity to call on as legs tire in the final quarter. Jack McGrath, who has played all but 11 minutes of the campaign thus far, should be glad to see his club colleague.
Huge responsibility on Robbie Henshaw
While we should all rejoice at the Irish midfield comprising two young, aggressive and highly skilled power houses, the fact remains the loss of Jared Payne, from a defensive perspective, is huge. The Kiwi has shown himself to be an intelligent and uber reliable operator in the toughest channel of all to patrol.
Henshaw, aside from having to acclimatise to a new partner, must now assume Payne’s role without any previous in doing so in the test arena. Of course, he and McCloskey are more than physically able but it’s not just about grunt. Jonathan Joseph is a sleek and evasive attacker and Eddie Jones will target such an inexperienced paring so watch how the Irish line holds up in the early goings.
A glaring omission
Paddy Jackson must be wondering exactly what he has to do to get in the Ireland match day squad. Ian Madigan is a superior place kicker and more versatile, but as a specialist 10 Jackson has surpassed the France-bound back.
Jonathan Sexton is hardly known for making it through 80 minutes of test rugby and, were he to be replaced earlier than usual, a practiced playmaker is what will be required to gain a maximum return in his absence.