Monday 22 January 2018

Keith Earls set to return as Schmidt weighs up his options

Joe Schmidt, Simon Easterby and Paddy Jackson in discussion at yesterday’s training session in Carton House. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile.
Joe Schmidt, Simon Easterby and Paddy Jackson in discussion at yesterday’s training session in Carton House. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile.
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The build-up to this England game has been long and, thanks to Eddie Jones and his magic book of made-up stats, unusually entertaining, but for Joe Schmidt and his coaching team, tomorrow's team announcement will be serious business.

Certainly, nobody at Carton House was going to indulge those of us who would enjoy a Premier League-style war of words with a riposte to Jones' goading from afar, with forwards coach Simon Easterby choosing to rise above the bait.

On Monday, the Australian repeated his criticism of Ireland's perceived over-reliance on kicking the ball, claiming wrongly that Schmidt's side kick 70pc of the possession they have.

"It looks a little high to me," Easterby said coolly. "I'd say probably half that would be more accurate. It's something that's been thrown out there, those things get thrown out there most games before a match.

"It's something that he feels is a strategy to try and get us to change, to do something different or react to it, but we can't fall into that trap; we've just got to try and stay focused on what we've done so far and what we plan to do."

England themselves are fond of a kick, Easterby agreed. So far this season, they have put boot to ball more frequently than Ireland.

"We've seen in the first two games that that's been part of their strategy," he said. "England have scored a couple of tries from those situations where the ball hasn't been dealt with in the air, they've won the scraps and they've managed to score.

"Listen, it's part of the game. I know it's a continuing talking point for you guys, but kicking, receiving, challenging in the air. . . all those things are just the way the game has developed and it's a strategy that you use when you feel like it's on; to pressure a side, to relieve pressure - and it will continue to be in the game.

"Some sides will kick more than others, some sides will kick more one week than the next; that's just the nature of the game."

Instead, the coaches' focus remains purely on themselves, and with a number of selections up for grabs, Ireland's management have much to think about ahead of their trip to London.

Back three

Dave Kearney is out injured, meaning Schmidt has a vacancy in the No 11 slot and, with Keith Earls and Simon Zebo back fit and Craig Gilroy back in the squad along with Fergus McFadden, he has options.

Zebo started game one at full-back before injuring his knee and subsequently lost his place to Rob Kearney when he came back from his hamstring problem.

Earls did well on the wing against Wales, but also covers the centre, where Jared Payne is struggling.

He looks set to get the nod, with Zebo on the bench.


If Payne recovers from his hamstring problem, then he'll start at outside-centre alongside Robbie Henshaw, with Earls on the wing.

However, if the Ulster man fails to prove his fitness, then Schmidt has a host of options.

One is to include Stuart McCloskey for his first cap and move Henshaw out one, creating a sizeable pairing who can try and exploit a mobile 10-12-13 combination in England's backline.

Earls covered for Payne during the World Cup, but always looks better on the wing, while Luke Marshall has been 24th man in both Six Nations games to date.

But the idea of adding the ball-carrying size and choke-tackling ability of McCloskey outside Johnny Sexton could appeal to the coach, with the Ulsterman adding a new off-loading dimension to Ireland's play.


Sexton and Conor Murray are fit, meaning they'll play and that means the next area up for debate is the front-row, where the presence of Mike Ross and Cian Healy strengthens Schmidt's hand.

With Tadhg Furlong and James Cronin gone from the squad, it looks like both Leinster returnees go into the match-day squad, and the smart money is on Ross starting alongside Jack McGrath and Rory Best, and Healy coming off the bench for impact.


This looks like a straightforward move up the rankings, with Donnacha Ryan likely to replace Mike McCarthy alongside Devin Toner and Ultan Dillane primed for his debut off the bench.

"He hits rucks and scrummages well. He is very powerful in the gym. He is the sort of player who, if we can hone his skills and his awareness at this level, then he is going to have a bright future," Easterby said of Dillane.


Sean O'Brien's absence has created an opening at openside and Schmidt may look to reconstruct his back-row in order to target England's lack of a quality No 7.

That could see Josh van der Flier leap-frog Tommy O'Donnell into the shirt for the first time, with the Leinster tyro primed to join CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip in the back-row.

The No 8 spoke yesterday of the increased importance of the ruck against England, which could be the key to his provincial colleague's inclusion.

"They've got guys who are very good at trying to poach the ball or trying to muddy up that ruck," Heaslip said.

"So your rucking has got to be very, very accurate and by that you've got to beat them into the space. You want to play with quick ball, but they're that kind of team and they'll slow that ball down if you're not proactive and taking that space."

Irish Independent

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