Sport Six Nations

Monday 27 May 2019

Breaking down the Joe Schmidt's options for Six Nations Italian job

 

Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The Ireland squad will reconvene this evening following a few days' break from the intensity of what Joe Schmidt commonly refers to as 'the bubble'.

While the players will have welcomed the chance to catch their breath, there will have been no let-up from Schmidt and his coaching staff as they look to fine-tune the issues that have cropped up in both games over the last fortnight.

With Italy next up, Ireland could not have asked for a better game to further restore whatever confidence was dented against England.

It has been interesting to hear Schmidt admit that everything is building towards the World Cup and while everyone knows that is the case, it does pose questions about what way the Kiwi will approach next weekend's trip to Rome.

Ireland will talk up the challenge of Italy, but in reality it is one they should little trouble in manoeuvring.

From that end, the biggest dilemma for Schmidt is whether or not to rotate his team with a view to further strengthening the talent pool.

The main factors to consider are, on one hand, certain regular starters, who are short on game-time would benefit from more minutes, while other fringe players need to get a look-in for other reasons.

Schmidt has viable options in every position and he will weigh those up with one eye on the World Cup.

Back-three

Rob Kearney looked sharp on his return and even though he falls into the category of needing more game-time, you know what you are going to get from the veteran and it would be a shock if, injury permitting, he isn't starting in the World Cup opener in Japan.

The Robbie Henshaw experiment will almost certainly be returned to before then but if he is fit for next weekend, there is value in putting the Athlone native back in the midfield alongside Garry Ringrose.

The identity of Ireland's back-up full-back remains unclear and Jordan Larmour merits another look there, with Will Addison seemingly hampered by the fact that he is predominantly playing at outside centre for Ulster.

Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls have impressed on the wings and while the likes of the fit-again Andrew Conway and Adam Byrne would relish a shot, Schmidt may well opt for continuity out wide.

Midfield

Bundee Aki has been excellent since breaking into the team but by his high standards, he didn't quite the hit those heights in either game.

Chris Farrell impressed against Scotland, but with Ringrose likely to have recovered from his hamstring injury and if Henshaw (knock) does the same, there will be a major temptation to pair what many people would perceive to be Ireland's first-choice centre partnership together.

Half-back

Johnny Sexton's fitness will have a major say on what happens here, yet even if he does fully recover, this is an ideal chance to hand Joey Carbery his first Six Nations start.

Sexton will not start every game in Japan and handing his understudy a valuable chance to impress in a competitive game is certainly worthwhile.

Like Kearney, Conor Murray looks as if he would be all the better for another run-out, but with Kieran Marmion fit again and John Cooney really unlucky not to have gotten more minutes in the first two games, Schmidt has good alternatives to the Munster scrum-half. Yet, if Carbery gets the nod at 10, playing alongside Murray in a green jersey is sensible.

Front-row

Cian Healy won't want to sit out the Italy game, even though he has firmly re-cemented his place as Ireland's first-choice loosehead.

Dave Kilcoyne has made a big impact off the bench as he maintains his fine Munster form, with Jack McGrath undoubtedly frustrated to be left out in the cold.

Rory Best has also rediscovered his form and doesn't have anything to prove. Schmidt appears to still see Seán Cronin as an impact sub, so with that in mind, Niall Scannell will be eager for a recall.

Tadhg Furlong, a key man, looks as though he would benefit from a breather. Andrew Porter is a very able deputy at tighthead, especially if he is alongside Healy in the front-row.

Second-row

Schmidt will have welcomed the sight of Tadhg Beirne training with Munster this week and if he can prove his fitness in time, he should come straight into the starting XV.

Quinn Roux was one of Ireland's better performers against Scotland and he may well retain his place alongside James Ryan, who is rapidly becoming an ever-present.

Back-row

Jack Conan will again be an automatic starter in CJ Stander's absence, and who plays alongside the Leinster No 8 on the flanks will be fascinating.

Seán O'Brien is still looking to rid himself of the dirty petrol and needs another start, while Peter O'Mahony is in the opposite category.

A weekend off for the Munster skipper wouldn't do any harm, with the ultra-reliable Rhys Ruddock primed to come back in and stake his claim.

Irish Independent

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