'Class is permanent' - Joe Schmidt launches strong defence of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton
Henshaw the latest blow as Ireland go to blustery Murrayfield looking to bounce back
Joe Schmidt has launched a strong defence of his starting half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton after duo's sub-par performances against England last weekend.
The pair start against Scotland tomorrow in a much-changed Ireland team as Robbie Henshaw became the latest injury victim to pull out after a bruising opening weekend loss.
Henshaw joins CJ Stander, Devin Toner and Garry Ringrose in being sidelined, while Dan Leavy, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion are also out.
The injuries have forced Schmidt into a raft of changes, with Rob Kearney starting at full-back and Chris Farrell coming in at outside centre, while Quinn Roux replaces Toner in the second-row and Jack Conan comes in at No 8 in Stander's place.
Seán O'Brien replaces Josh van der Flier who drops to the bench in the only unenforced change.
Ireland have come in for plenty of criticism after last week's 32-20 loss and Schmidt yesterday defended his tactics. In particular, he went to bat for his long-standing half-backs who play together for the 51st time tomorrow.
"I think they are class players and class is permanent," Schmidt said.
"Form can be temporary and coming back after not having played in a month, a player might be a bit rusty.
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"A player who has had a longer lay-off and is getting back to their rhythm, he might be a bit rusty.
"So this period for us is super for them to build themselves back to where they need to be, and I think I said post the game that we've always tended to finish strongly in the championship and we're going to have to, going away to Wales at the end of this.
"But whether we've been home or away, we've won our last game in the championship so I do think that we can build our way through this championship and I think those two guys, as a hub, will build themselves forward.
"I've chatted to both of them, mainly to offer them the same confidence that so many people have in them, including the players in the team; that they are outstanding contributors to our environment off the pitch, they are class players on the pitch and they are just the sort of competitive animal we need going to a hostile environment, which Murrayfield will be."
As well as being hostile, high winds are also forecast at the Edinburgh venue which could make the play even more attritional. Having made four changes to his team, bringing Jonny Gray, Simon Berghan, Josh Strauss and Sean Maitland back after the win over Italy, coach Gregor Townsend warned that the game-plans may have to change to suit the conditions.
"I think this is going to be such a competitive game," he said.
"One thing we've got our eye on as well is the weather. Tomorrow's team run looks to be nice with 40mph winds and rain and it's going to be very windy on Saturday.
"It might be a different game than we played on Saturday against Italy when it was near perfect playing conditions.
"Certain plays or certain styles of play that we've planned might work against Ireland, if it is very windy and we have to play against the wind or with the wind we'd change things tactically.
"I feel our group have improved a lot tactically over the last few years."
Townsend does not believe the Irish injury toll will weaken them.
"I think the depth they have is amazing," the ex-Glasgow coach said. "When it looked like Ringrose was going to miss out you bring Rob Kearney back in and put Henshaw to 13. Now he's out, Chris Farrell is a very good player, he's strong and when he played for Ireland last year I thought he was outstanding until he picked up an injury.
"They're going to be very direct in that midfield with him and Bundee Aki. They've still got the world's best half-backs in Murray and Sexton available to them.
"Keith Earls, who left the field last week, is an outstanding player and they can just swap in anybody in that pack; Seán O'Brien, one of the best Irish forwards of recent times.
"We know the challenge we're up against, our players play against Leinster, Munster, Ulster regularly, we play Ireland once a year and this year we get to play them twice.
"So we do know how good they are and how they're going to attack us in this game.
"It'll be a huge battle and within that there's many battles around the restart, the kick cycle, the contact area, scrum and lineout."