With five matches under his belt against England – four of them as a starter – Peter O’Mahony will have had his antennae tuned from early this week for what was coming next. Of the hopefuls, he was top of the list. So were the signs indicating six games with four starts, or six with five?
When you look at O’Mahony and what he offers you struggle to think of him as a bench player. Even allowing for the gaggle of back-rowers trying to squeeze themselves into Joe Schmidt’s starting side, gravitas goes a long way – and the Munster man has that in spades.
So when he came on against Australia last November there was immediately a sense of calm that Ireland would work their way safely over the finish line.
It wasn’t his lineout presence that closed the deal that day – he wasn’t asked to deliver anything on Ireland’s throw - but in the 20 minutes he got in replacing Jamie Heaslip he carried and organised and looked generally like he knew exactly what was required. It’s hard to put a value on having that option off the bench.
By the time the selection became clear to the players you’d imagine O’Mahony had realised he was about to fall down the news agenda. He was getting the number 20 shirt. But Devin Toner would be wearing 19.
Toner is a man Joe Schmidt has got to know well from his days in Leinster. That relationship started with the second row, typically, coming off the bench, to the point where he became a fixture. And that continued when Schmidt succeeded Declan Kidney in the Ireland job.
So to change horses mid-stream is a huge call. While O’Mahony has been on the outside from the start of this Championship, Toner has been leading Ireland’s lineout stats. He has been either top or joint top provider out of touch. Ditching him for Iain Henderson has to extend beyond simply what he returns from that phase. Clearly Schmidt wants a lot more than a lineout man.
The effect is to give Ireland greater carrying potential and greater grunt, for while Toner is always busy and committed he doesn’t excel in either area. So Ireland will be looking to play the game in between the touchlines. Nevertheless Toner’s demotion also puts huge pressure on the Ulster player who paid a high price for his poor showing – despite a try – in the opening round, in Edinburgh.
Nowhere will that pressure be more acute than at the lineout. Ireland returned 100 per cent in two of their four matches – Italy and France – on their own throw, losing two of 14 to the Scots and three of 13 to Wales. In that Wales game they spread the load over five players: Toner, Henderson, Donnacha Ryan, CJ Stander and Heaslip.
They had been even more varied against France, with six players (O’Mahony contributed two takes off the bench) sharing the load, but against Wales it didn’t protect them against pilfering.
And with England bringing Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje to the start line on Saturday it will give us a fascinating match within a match – with England starting as clear favourites even if Ireland’s lineout is marginally more efficient to date.
It’s worth going back to their game in Cardiff to see how they utilised those resources. In round one, against France, Itoje delivered a stellar eight catches, comfortably top of England’s chart on the day. And in Wales? Nothing. Not a sausage. Instead they used this remarkable athlete as a means of drawing enemy fire and creating space for Lawes and Launchbury, who between them returned 100 per cent from nine throws.
With both Toner and O’Mahony on the bench Ireland won’t have as starters either their top target or the luxury of a third top-of-the-range lineout operator to transfix the opposition. Schmidt is banking on the trade-off elsewhere paying dividends. A lot of things will need to go right.