Monday 16 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Joe Schmidt made a big call with his World Cup squad - now he has made one with his team'

CJ Stander, left, and Jack Conan will play in the back row against Wales. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
CJ Stander, left, and Jack Conan will play in the back row against Wales. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A few days ago you would have got very attractive odds on a double that Joe Schmidt would leave Devin Toner out of the 31 man squad for Japan, and CJ Stander would be picked at six to start against Wales.

If the first bit clarified that the coach is prepared to make massive calls in circumstances that will certainly threaten his status as the saviour of Irish rugby, then the second suggests he’s open to change on the way his game is delivered. Saturday against Wales will confirm how far that change extends.

Once Jamie Heaslip was off the scene and CJ Stander had shifted from six to number eight it seemed Schmidt had closed his mind to anything different in that area. Stander at first was a wrecking ball, so few were arguing. But when the demolition derby stopped and Jack Conan had emerged as an eight with a more than decent all-court game it seemed the coach was unconvinced.

So what we have now is another example – albeit unexpected – of an Ireland back row where men who were wedded to their positions are now shifting a bit. In Peter O’Mahony’s case that has meant his usual starting slot of six against England and then seven against Wales in Cardiff last weekend. And for Stander it’s a move from number eight against England to the short side on Saturday.

The last time this trio got together in this configuration was the decisive third test in Sydney last summer. A happy ending.

What remains to be seen is how the carrying duty will break down between Stander and Conan, and indeed how much ball-playing will be allowed now that the Leinster man is at number eight and Stander is more under cover.

We remember an open Ireland session in Mullingar a few years ago when in rare circumstances Stander – whatever the structure of the practice game was – had ample opportunity to play some ball. We left that day certain that here was a sniper in the uniform of a storm trooper.

Sadly for Ireland his role has been mostly about carrying into contact from a launch pad clearly visible to the opposition, who typically have been mowing him down before he could get going. This, hopefully, opens a different door.

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The other items of interest will be how Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton fare in a game where there is unusual – given the time of year – pressure to win. Between them they have no game time in their legs.

And up front, the pairing of James Ryan and Jean Kleyn, behind a strong front row, will be expected to give unquestioned stability to the Ireland scrum. As for the lineout, in the week that’s in it, this is not the time to be late with a lift, off target with a throw, or muddled with a call. A full house want a rousing send off. Given recent circumstances, that's a lot to ask for.

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