Friday 21 September 2018

Return of big guns gives Joe Schmidt the edge

Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O’Connor

Despite losing the man of the match from their victory over Wales, it could be reasonably argued that Ireland are now in a stronger place ahead of Saturday's penultimate Six Nations clash.

The return to full fitness of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong has bolstered Joe Schmidt's options and, while the knee injury suffered by Chris Farrell is a loss, the availability of Garry Ringrose has eased the blow.

They'd prefer to have Seán O'Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne available of course, but given the attritional nature of the campaign there is an acceptance that not everyone will be available at once.

If you'd offered Schmidt the options he has at his disposal for the final two games, you'd imagine he'd have taken it. There may be a lack of cover at centre below Ringrose, where Munster pair Sam Arnold and Rory Scannell are light on experience, while another back-row injury could make life awkward but he will be happy with the match-day 23 he can put together this week.

The big decision rests on whether to put Henderson and Furlong straight back into the team at the expense of Andrew Porter and Devin Toner who both did well against Wales.

"I think any side would be happy to have them come back into selection," forwards coach Simon Easterby said.

"They are quality player who have proved that over the last couple of seasons, but certainly in the summer with the Lions some first class performances. It creates massive comp(etition) within the group.

"We feel at the moment we are building real quality depth. The guys who do not make the 23 at the weekend will feel they can come in and not drop the standard. There's a real buzz and expectation for those who will come in."

There is a compelling argument for restoring both Lions who have been struggling with hamstring issues since the Italy game.

When fit and firing, the duo are among the first names on the Irish team-sheet, offering high work-rate and playing key roles in the Irish attacking plan.

Although Porter coped well at scrum-time against Wales, he is still developing and while the experience of such a high-stakes game will stand to him in the weeks and months to come, there remains a gap between him and his 25-year-old Leinster team-mate

It's closing, but Furlong has gone toe -to-toe with the best in the world and come out on top and Porter can offer plenty of impact coming off the bench.

The argument for keeping the Wexford native on ice has been made, but if he's fit he has to play.

Henderson was ahead of the prop in the fitness stakes and while Toner and James Ryan did well last week, the Ulster man has been one of Ireland's form players in this tournament and was pivotal in the build-up to Johnny Sexton's drop-goal in Paris.

It seems likely that he will be restored to the engine room, while Schmidt must then decide how to manage his second-rows given the seven-day turnaround at the end of a heavy schedule.

He may choose to try and go full strength for both games, but the other option is to manage the load by rotating in the areas where he can afford to do so.

One of those is loosehead prop where he knows Cian Healy and Jack McGrath can perform to a similarly high level. Healy has the edge in selection this season, but Leinster often manage the duo in European weeks and Ireland could look to do the same.

Scope

Similarly, they could swap Henderson's second-row partners from one week to another, but elsewhere the scope for change looks limited.

Ringrose looks nailed on to come into the centre alongside Bundee Aki for the first time, while the back three of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale looks set in stone.

Similarly, the half-backs are nailed on presuming they have overcome the issues that kept them out of training last week. Conor Murray was sporting heavy strapping on his knee ahead of yesterday's session, but he will take his place alongside Sexton.

O'Brien may make a comeback for Leinster on Friday which could put him in the frame for Twickenham, but the trio of Peter O'Mahony, Dan Leavy and CJ Stander have done well and are expected to be retained.

The return of the front-liners means that Ireland should be able to name a stronger bench, which should help prevent the late wobble that almost saw the Wales win slip from their grasp.

Irish Independent

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