Wednesday 16 October 2019

Schmidt's all-Munster front-five can set the platform for big victory

John Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile
John Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile

Cian Tracey in Kobe

With such a short turnaround from the defeat to Japan, Joe Schmidt was always going to make a raft of changes for tomorrow's game against Russia.

With only one full pitch session this week, time was against Ireland as they looked to fine-tune their game-plan for the next assignment.

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From that end, it is no surprise that Schmidt has opted for settled combinations throughout his starting team.

The back-line is littered with familiarity and although Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton haven't had a huge amount of time together at international level, the half-back pair know each other inside out from playing with Leinster.

Schmidt had options up front, but it is telling that he has picked an all-Munster front-five as the likes of Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter miss out on the start they would have been craving.

Seeing Munster players wearing numbers one to five is a throwback to the glory years, when the club was winning Heineken Cups.

This is a new era and the five who have been selected have arrived at this point on merit.

Dave Kilcoyne is in the form of his life and he has carried his club form on to the international stage.

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Despite Jack McGrath's loss of form, Kilcoyne still managed to make up a huge amount of ground to usurp a player who featured in all three Lions Tests two years ago.

Kilcoyne will be joined in the front-row by Niall Scannell and John Ryan, who are both relishing the chance to pack down in front of Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn.

Ireland will expect to dominate Russia at the set-piece and although they didn't manage to do so against Tier 2 opposition last weekend, if they struggle tomorrow night serious questions will be asked.

By and large, Munster's pack performed well last season, although they did wobble against better opposition such as the likes of Saracens and Leinster.

Schmidt is relying on them to set the tone and if they bully Russia early on it can set the platform for the rest of the team to kick on and take a firm grip of proceedings.

We have been down this road before but a good performance from Scannell would also heap pressure back on Rory Best, who dipped after an excellent display against Scotland.

The sticky, humid conditions will play a part in how effective Ireland's pack will be at the indoor stadium in Kobe, but they know each other well enough to be able to adapt.

"Having a Munster front-five is pretty good now in fairness," Ryan admits.

"It's a five-day turnaround but you can't claim that you don't have familiarity with the lads around you, so that's one excuse gone out the window.

"I'm delighted to know the fellas to my left and behind me.

"Again, there are opportunities for some of those lads who haven't been starting - an opportunity to get in for games down the line, hopefully.

"Knowing the players alongside you helps everything, knowing each other's processes. So if something is going wrong, it's not the end of the world. We know how to adapt. That's the same for the lineout and around the pitch as well."

Ryan has had to wait for his World Cup chance, as has Scannell, who despite featuring in the win over Scotland came on in the back-row rather than at hooker.

The 27-year-old is back in more familiar surrounds and even if he insists the players haven't spoken about it, the Munster contingent are likely to have acknowledged the massive chance that has presented itself.

"Obviously I have a familiarity with the lads and on a short turnaround that probably is a bit helpful," Scannell says. "But it's not something that we've really spoken about either.

"It wouldn't really have mattered who was in this week, we're all unbelievably motivated.

"So at this point after a long pre-season and where we are now, we'd be pretty familiar with all the front-fives involved. I think regardless of who is in there they are all familiar faces at the moment."

Beirne has been limited to two appearances off the bench thus far, but the glimpses of his quality have been there for all to see.

The yellow card against Scotland was harsh but Beirne won't let that stop him from going after the ball tomorrow, whenever opportunities present themselves.

He has formed a good partnership with Kleyn in Munster's engine-room and they will be confident of replicating that kind of form.

Kleyn came in for plenty of criticism when he was selected in the squad ahead of Devin Toner and he will be eager to silence those doubters with an assured performance.

It has been a long time coming for a Munster front-five to dominate on the world stage. This group won't get a better chance to make it count.

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