Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Why Joe Schmidt might have just stumbled upon his best back row combination'
When he sits down on Sunday to pick his 31-man squad for the World Cup in Japan, Joe Schmidt's greatest headache may centre around his back-row options.
The Ireland head coach has much to consider, from the absence of key figures from this World Cup cycle like the retired No 8 Jamie Heaslip and injured opensides Dan Leavy and Seán O’Brien, to the balance of the back-row he sends out against Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa in the coming weeks.
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Tomorrow at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, he trials the 12th combination in 23 Tests since the 2017 Lions tour.
No doubt Schmidt would prefer a more settled look to his back-row over the course of those matches, but injury always plays a part when it comes to the Nos 6, 7 and 8 given the nature of the job in hand.
And, the absence of Leavy and O’Brien in particular will shape his thinking as he narrows in on the challenge ahead.
And, in Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony and Jack Conan, he may just have stumbled on something that works.
In terms of height, this is a back-row that can make Ireland a potent force in the lineout.
Beirne runs Munster’s set-piece in conjunction with O’Mahony and both men are noted options, while Conan is well able to get up in the air.
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In the context of Ireland’s struggles out of touch at Twickenham last weekend, they could help Niall Scannell greatly in Cardiff.
And then there is the poaching capacity of both Beirne and O’Mahony.
With their two most potent opensides, Leavy and O’Brien, sidelined, Ireland’s ability to get their hands on the opposition ball has waned in recent times but by freeing Beirne from his second-row duties there is a real threat on the ground.
And with those two getting down and dirty in the ruck, Conan will be free to do what he does best in the loose. The Leinster No 8 has been in excellent form in the past year and has upped his work-rate significantly in the Ireland shirt.
The combination of O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander, which started and struggled in Twickenham last week, has been the most used in those 23 games and remains the likely starting trio against Scotland in three weeks’ time.
But while van der Flier and Stander have much to offer, their form is not quite where Schmidt will want it.
Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock and Tommy O’Donnell are still in contention according to Schmidt, who is likely to take five back-rows to Japan, but Beirne’s flexibility perhaps allows him some wiggle-room.
If they go well, this trio have a chance of linking up again in Japan, even if circumstances brought the combination about more than anything.
"Funnily enough it is less about the line-out options as much as all three of them are very capable in the line-out," Schmidt said of his selection for tomorrow’s game.
"It was more about just getting guys on the pitch and giving them opportunities really.
"Josh had a massive workload last week. He covered more metres than anyone else, had more involvements than anyone else.
"Obviously making 20 tackles, the number of breakdowns, it was (best) to give him a bit of a rest and alongside him CJ Stander with 18 tackles, it was a reasonably sapping game.
"So for those two we weren’t going to back them up and then it was a case of Rhys had a bit of a niggle and wasn’t as fully fit as we had hoped. We wanted to give as much certainty at the start of this week as possible because it is one of those weeks where you do need a reaction, you do need to get some confidence into the group as early as possible.
"We get that confidence by training well because we can’t play the game until Saturday so you have got to build towards it and that was really the reason for the back-row.”
"We are expecting that we will get some good pressure on the ball.
"Obviously Tadhg is well-known for his ability to get pressure on the ball, so is Pete, and Jack Conan is well known for his ability to run in space and play in the wide channels really effectively.
"So you know we hope there’s enough balance in the back-row that they can offer us what we need."
Could we see these three pitched into battle against Scotland?
At this point it seems a little unlikely, but after the record defeat to England it seems all bets are off.
Not that Schmidt is getting carried away.
"It is way too early to make that prediction," he said.
"We are really focused on this week right now but we have in mind that they need to be ready for Scotland.
"If they play outstandingly well and they’re ready for Scotland, and they need a bit more time they might get it next week and project themselves forward from there.”
"As I said, Josh and CJ had very big workloads last week, and certainly Rhys and Tommy are both athletes who aren’t out of the picture.
"I think it is one of those places where when we sit down on Sunday afternoon, it’s going to be some of the toughest decisions that we have to make."
It might be the first time we’ve seen these three players combine, but it may not be the last.