Brendan Fanning: 'Schmidt's second row decision like battening down the hatches when forecast is for sunshine'
If the planets were aligned kindly then Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray would be available behind the scrum, and up front Sean O’Brien would be competing with Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier for a place in the back row.
But given that they rarely are where you want them to be, this is as close as Joe Schmidt could have hoped to getting his best XV on the field to face the All Blacks.
The only surprise is the omission from the matchday 23 of Tadhg Beirne. In this parish we’d see him as the best all-rounder currently in Ireland, so for him to be fit and omitted is a huge call from the coach.
The rationale seems to be that against two world class lineout forwards like Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock it would be a risk to have Beirne on board for fear of being exposed. With Devin Toner and Peter O’Mahony in the starting side, it would be especially bad luck to finish up without both of those lineout leaders, so leaving Beirne out on that basis looks like battening down the hatches when the forecast is for sunshine and calm.
This allows Iain Henderson to drop only as far as the bench when to include Beirne would have seen him out of the matchday 23 altogether. In the circumstances, Henderson should count himself lucky to be in the mix at all.
His riding instructions coming out of the traps against the Pumas was to set the pace and make a strong case for inclusion ahead of Toner as partner to James Ryan. The Ulster player is a better athlete but Toner has managed to make himself almost invaluable, and would have been relieved by the fact that Henderson wasn’t ripping up any trees against Argentina.
Neither as it happens was the captain, Rory Best. The Ulster hooker has handled intense pressure pretty well on a few occasions in his career, but he needs to deliver the complete package on Saturday. Best’s debut was against the All Blacks, in 2005, and for him to get to the World Cup in situ will require something special. Evidently Schmidt had his issues with Sean Cronin in Australia but that battle with Best isn't going away quietly.
Schmidt’s loyalty to his captain will count for a lot. Rob Kearney has been another of the coach’s go-to players and he will be relieved to have him back in the starting side, knowing that to Kearney’s credit he has a tremendous knack of performing in the biggest games.
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Clearly given the scale of the task on Saturday, Schmidt would feel happier if the spine of his side also included Murray. There is a trade-off here. If Ireland can get the turbo charge to their momentum that would come from a first-ever home win in this fixture, and do so without Murray, then its value would be even higher. But Schmidt would rate his team’s chances significantly better with the Munster scrumhalf on board. All things considered, the coach has a reasonable hand of cards to play.
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