Brendan Fanning: Schmidt has opted for a player he trusts rather than a younger model who offers so much more
The reuniting of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw in a different shade of green – actually it will be white on the day – will dominate the talkback from Joe Schmidt’s selection to face the Springboks on Saturday.
Aki is in the crosshairs because his qualification comes hot on the heels of the World Rugby decision last May to shift the incubation period from three to five years before overseas players could represent their new country of residence.
Given that Aki didn’t frame the regulations, and is but one of a stream of players to avail of their light touch, it’s unfair to behave as if the situation was otherwise.
Where it would become interesting is if the balance of the squad tilted so far towards the new arrivals as to leave a raft of Irish players with their noses out of joint.
That’s Schmidt’s call. When you have his mix of pragmatism and competitiveness then it’s a balance that needs a lot of attention. Aki’s form helps his case. If however at some point the coach chooses an overseas player ahead of a home grown option when it’s a circa 50-50 call then the reaction will be interesting.
It’s not as if Schmidt has stuck rigidly to the form guide though. The unavoidable was Jacob Stockdale, whose quality was confirmed on the summer tour to US and Japan. For Darren Sweetnam as well it’s a fair reward for a player who has been earmarked once he left behind a burgeoning career with Cork hurlers.
Nor could you argue with the selection of Andrew Conway. He struggles to make the starting side with Munster, and will win his fourth cap here courtesy of Keith Earls’s injury, but his form this season has been good.
With one 80 minute performance under his belt this season it would be hard to argue that Rob Kearney has a lot of that. Rather, Schmidt has opted for a player he trusts implicitly on big days over a younger model, in Joey Carbery, who offers so much more than his Leinster teammate.
It tells you something about the resources available to Schmidt at the minute that he can pick a pack of forwards where all bar two have over 30 caps. And of that pair one is CJ Stander – a Lion from last summer – and the other, Tadhg Furlong, is a Test starter from the same trip.
So six Lions in all up front. The bench is a bit thinner, especially with the absence of Jack McGrath. If the loosehead found it difficult watching from there during the Lions tour then he’ll find it a whole lot harder sitting in the back of the stand. Behind Dave Kilcoyne.
Equally, Ultan Dillane will wonder what has happened to his career since being selected in the Six Nations squad early last year. The emergence of James Ryan has put a halt to his gallop. And he’ll find it hard to turn that race around.
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