Saturday 16 February 2019

Five selection issues facing Joe Schmidt

Declan Whooley

Will Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt make changes for Saturday's Six Nations finale with Scotland? Here are five areas he might look to change.

Centre

Defensively Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw have been as good as any partnership in the Six Nations, with the Connacht star in particular catching the eye with some impressive tackling stats.

On the front foot they have not posed as much of an attacking threat as some would have hoped. Henshaw may be slightly curtailed playing at 12, with most predicting his future in Brian O'Driscoll's iconic 13 jersey. But could that come before the Six Nations is complete?

Schmidt could move the 21 year-old to outside centre and bring Ian Madigan into midfield. The versatile Leinster player has been mainly used in midfield by the coach, but would offer more invention.

Luke Fitzgerald too is another viable option and his performances provincially mean he cannot be too far away from the reckoning. Has been part of the extended squad, but could force his way into the match-day 23 at least, with wing an option if not midfield.

Front row

Loyalty is one of Schmidt's most noticeable traits, but Cian Healy may get the nod over Jack McGrath just to get more game time after his recent injury lay-off.

Sean Cronin and Marty Moore added impetus off the bench in Cardiff, but Rory Best and Mike Ross are in pole position to retain their positions. Cronin in particular would benefit from a championship start with the World Cup looming.

Second row

The lineout was far from its best against Wales and while Paul O'Connell caught the eye with two inspirational line breaks, the set-piece will have greatly disappointed the captain and his second row partner Devin Toner.

O'Connell is certain to be be named, but there will be a temptation to give Iain Henderson a Six Nations start. Toner has been a model of consistency and Ireland's go-to option for Rory Best, but the rangy Ulsterman is another who would reap the benefits of the heat of championship to add more experience to the squad.

Back row

Again Iain Henderson could be worth a look with the bigger picture in mind, though a second row berth would be more likely.

Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy have pushed their cases for inclusion already this term, but few would expect Jamie Heaslip to miss out in favour of further experimentation.

Bench

With invention required, question marks have been raised as to whether Felix Jones is the man to provide it from the replacements bench.

The Munster man is a versatile operator and a solid back-up for Rob Kearney, but someone of the calibre of Luke Fitzgerald might be more likely to unlock a tight defence if Schmidt decides to re-jig his match-day 23.

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