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Comment: Familiarity breeds contentment for Joe Schmidt with openside and second-row the only big calls

 

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Ian Keatley lines up the tackle on Keith Earls during Ireland’s training session at Carton House yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

Ian Keatley lines up the tackle on Keith Earls during Ireland’s training session at Carton House yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Ian Keatley lines up the tackle on Keith Earls during Ireland’s training session at Carton House yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

In rugby terms, this is as serene a build-up as Joe Schmidt could have wanted for the visit to France on Saturday.

Although the events in a court room up the road in Belfast are sure to have reached the ears of his players as they broke for their midweek rest day yesterday, the coach can only control what he can control and he will do everything within his power to keep their focus within the four lines of the pitch.

His own focus has been squarely on this fixture for quite some time. France's decision to relieve Guy Noves of his commission and replace him with Jacques Brunel has undoubtedly made the French tougher to analyse, but Schmidt will have covered as many angles as possible.

From his own point of view, this is one of the more straightforward selections the coach has made.

November was successful and of the team that beat Argentina in the final Test only Adam Byrne and Seán O'Brien are absent through injury, while Rhys Ruddock and Dave Kilcoyne were also involved and miss out on this weekend's game.

Byrne's loss will be covered by Keith Earls, while Schmidt has options in the front and back-rows to cover the absentees.

The early signs are that Ireland will have a familiar look to them when they take the field in Paris on Saturday, with only a few places up for grabs despite the increased depth in the squad.

While opposition coaches are dealing with injury turmoil, the New Zealander can take comfort from the settled look to his side as they set about reclaiming the title.

Back three

With Earls fit, the likelihood is that the Munster winger will come on to the right wing and join Rob Kearney and Jacob Stockdale in the back three.

The 30-year-old is in flying form and, while he has played most of his rugby for Ireland on the left wing, he was selected in the No 14 shirt when he played alongside Stockdale during the summer tour and is comfortable in the role.

Kearney may be under pressure from Jordan Larmour for his Leinster spot, but he has bags of international experience and is a key voice in the Irish set-up, particularly when directing those around him positionally. His ability to claim contestable kicks is unparalleled and offers Ireland an alternative route to go-forward ball if the collisions aren't going their way.

Andrew Conway looks to be the next in line for a bench spot given he offers cover across the back-three, but Fergus McFadden's goal-kicking will be a consideration if Joey Carbery is picked as back-up to Johnny Sexton. Larmour will likely have to wait for his chance.

Midfield

Had Garry Ringrose been fit, this would have been Schmidt's most interesting selection but the absence of the Leinster starlet means the combination of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw look set to pair up again.

Sam Arnold has been training with Ireland since last week to gain experience, but Chris Farrell looks next in line and Rory Scannell offers an alternative.

Half-back

No discussion, Conor Murray and Sexton start if fit and the only intrigue here is who will back them up. Kieran Marmion is the favourite to cover the scrum-half berth given his experience last season, with Luke McGrath pushing hard after impressing for Leinster all season.

Schmidt must decide whether 20 minutes at full-back against Montpellier is enough proof of Carbery's readiness or if Ian Keatley's experience and match-fitness wins the day.

Whatever about making an impact late on, Schmidt must consider the possibility of Sexton going down with an early injury. Carbery's lack of game-time at No 10 is a real hindrance to his chances.

Front-row

We can presume that Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong will wear the No 2 and 3 shirts, while it is a toss-up between Jack McGrath and Cian Healy for the loosehead start.

Healy was ahead in the race in November and remains in fine form and it looks likely that he will continue in the No 1 jersey despite his recent ban.

Really, Ireland can be comfortable with either man, knowing the other will come on early in the second half and perform.

John Ryan will cover Furlong, while Seán Cronin may edge Rob Herring on form.

Second-row

This is the one area where Schmidt could spring a surprise, by retaining James Ryan ahead of Devin Toner after impressing against Argentina.

With Iain Henderson increasingly influential at lineout time, the prospect of pairing him with the more athletic Ryan could appeal to the coach who wants to play a dynamic game-plan.

It may be harsh on Toner, who showed an ability to steer the ship home when coming off the bench against England last season.

Back-row

This selection will tell us a lot about the way Schmidt wants to play and all indicatons point to Josh van der Flier joining Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander in the back-row.

While Dan Leavy looks the most natural replacement for O'Brien in terms of his physicality and poaching ability against a big French pack, Van der Flier is enjoying a fine season and his defensive work looks set to tip the balance.

Jordi Murphy, meanwhile, combines both and has added an extra edge to his breakdown work this season and has always been a player Schmidt rates highly but it looks like Van der Flier will get the nod.

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Irish Independent