Monday 22 January 2018

Five talking points as Joe Schmidt takes a risk with an exciting Ireland selection

Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Ireland made history last Saturday with their first ever win on South African soil but Joe Schmidt's men will have to repeat that herculean effort once again this weekend if they are to seal a sensational series win.

Many tipped the first test as the best chance for Ireland to spring a surprise, as this Saturday's game in Johannesburg will be played at altitude, on the daunting 'highveld'.

The physically exerting performance last week and the prospect of a repeat seven days later is why Schmidt made so many changes to his 23-man squad.

Read more: Mike Ross dropped as Schmidt rings the changes for second Test against South Africa

Tadhg Furlong, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock, Stuart Olding and Craig Gilroy have all been brought into the first XV for the massive second test while the bench also features a host of new faces.

Here are five talking points from the team selection.

Schmidt finally opts to ring the changes

One criticism levelled at the Ireland boss towards the tail end of the Six Nations was his reluctance to blood young players in key positions. Closing home encounters against Italy and Scotland looked ideal times to rest Johnny Sexton and Mike Ross while giving their possible long-term replacements - Paddy Jackson and Tadhg Furlong - meaningful game time.

However, Schmidt resisted that temptation and although Ireland recorded comprehensive wins, the worry was that the Kiwi had missed a good opportunity to give players important test experience before injury necessitated it.

Lo and behold, Sexton needed surgery on his shoulder after the Pro12 final, which propelled Jackson into action last weekend.

The out-half thrived and it looks like Schmidt has decided that now is the time to expose other inexperienced members of his squad to the intensity of test rugby.

Tadhg Furlong's strong showing off the bench against the Springboks confirmed that he's ready for the biggest start of his career, while Stuart Olding and Craig Gilroy have also been given the chance to transfer their stellar club form to the international stage.

Furlong given a chance to state his credentials

With Marty Moore soon to be playing in Coventry and Mike Ross and Nathan White both in their mid 30s, Tadhg Furlong could position himself as Ireland's preeminent tighthead by the end of this tour.

His cameo off the bench last weekend was a brilliant start - he contributed to a huge shove from the Irish pack, winning a key scrum penalty moments after his introduction.

It is a testament to Ross' durability that he started the first test last week - the Corkman was dropped from the Leinster 23 for their final two Champions Cup pool games in 2015, only for the tighthead to fight his way back into prominence during Ireland's subsequent Six Nations title-winning campaign.

It is unfair to write off Ross just yet, but this is certainly a chance for the 23-year-old Furlong to establish himself as an international quality prop.

He couldn't ask for a tougher opponent in Tendai Mtawarira - no doubt the Beast is ravenous after the events of last weekend, but likewise, Furlong showed enough to be confident in overcoming the Springbok loosehead.

Roux's selection a bolt from the blue

Perhaps given CJ Stander's suspension, Joe Schmidt wished to maintain a South African presence in his pack given who his team is facing because on the face of it, Quinn Roux's presence in the starting team is a shock.

Roux couldn't force his way into the Connacht 23 during their Pro12 title run-in, and appeared to be the fifth choice lock in the Ireland squad when they touched down in South Africa.

But with Iain Henderson shifted to blindside flanker and Ultan Dillane rested for the second test, Roux now finds himself picked for what will surely be an emotional game for him on the highveld.

Schmidt pointed to the second row's ability in the tight as the main reason for his selection, and Roux will need to put in a big shift at scrum and lineout if Ireland are to win for only the second time in South Africa.

Cronin is the man to miss out again

Schmidt said earlier today that besides CJ Stander, everyone else was fit, albeit 'tired'. To that end, hooker Sean Cronin can feel very unlucky that he is one of those rested. The dynamic front row was typically effective off the bench in Cape Town, but once again, it hasn't been enough to rise in the pecking order - or even maintain his place.

Richardt Strauss will take Cronin's position on the bench this Saturday, which hardly seems fair given the pair's contrasting form this season.

An attacking line-up becomes even more offensive

Many were surprised by Joe Schmidt's selection for the first test, with Jared Payne finally getting a chance at fullback, which meant that Luke Marshall was selected at first centre. Ireland's attack looked considerably sharper as a result, and instead of opting to consolidate after last weekend's win, Schmidt has gone for an even more aggressive line-up this weekend.

Playmaker Olding will start at inside centre while the potent Gilroy, who scored tries for fun in the Pro12 this year, is picked ahead of Keith Earls on the wing.

Ulster can now boast five starters in Ireland's backline, and you can't say it isn't deserved on current form.

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