Sunday 25 February 2018

Comment - Paddy Jackson and Cian Healy know exactly where they stand in the pecking order now

Cian Healy and Paddy Jackson move to the bench this week
Cian Healy and Paddy Jackson move to the bench this week
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The last time we heard Joe Schmidt delight, in the middle of a tournament, in the bonus of having a virtually fully fit squad it was half way through the 2015 World Cup. And injury already was removing Jared Payne from the equation, with others to follow.

That vista of having many hands on deck presented itself again this week, in which case the coach has the minor discomfort of not evading tight selection through injury. If you make the match day 23 you’re there because you are rated ahead of the next fella. This is not a day for rotation.

So the line a couple of days ago that Johnny Sexton didn’t have a divine right to be picked was, well, window dressing. Sexton may not be deity but, when fit, Schmidt has him front and centre on the altar.

For Paddy Jackson the message is clear: for the foreseeable future his opportunities to start a frontline Test will be restricted to Sexton’s fitness issues. It’s unlikely that his nose will be severely out of joint at that state of affairs, not least because, given the fluctuating nature of Sexton’s battles with fitness, that leaves the window open.

The situation at loose head is less clear cut, but unambiguous nonetheless. The perception is that Jack McGrath’s current form is a few degrees south of last season. So he was rested against Italy – which probably filled him with annoyance and resolve in equal measure – and Cian Healy gratefully hopped in. Healy now hops out again.

And it’s with a great big bound, you’d imagine, that Peter O’Mahony takes his place back in the match day squad. Given his effectiveness off the bench against Australia in November it must have been hard to spectate, from a distance, the first two rounds of this Championship.

Elsewhere in the pack the most interesting decision came in the announcement last Sunday of the 34 man squad to prepare for France. It didn’t seem fanciful, even allowing for the white hot competition at second row for the Lions, to see Ultan Dillane sneaking out to New Zealand at some stage in the tour. To sustain that however he needed to keep Schmidt convinced of his value in changing the tempo of a game.

Short on game time himself, clearly Dillane’s contributions over the first two rounds didn’t sustain that case. Like his teammate Finlay Bealham, he has paid a price for cruising when he was supposed to be sprinting. So Dillane will be in Italy with Connacht on Sunday afternoon, in the Guinness Pro 12, instead of recovering in Dublin from an afternoon with Ireland.

The return of Andrew Trimble, to the bench, is further evidence of Joe Schmidt’s admiration for a player who is short of international gas but does enough right to keep the coach happy. He is the third man to fill the outside back slot on the bench in as many games. It seems to be the closest thing to experimentation that the Championship allows. With Trimble though you know exactly what you’ll get.

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