Schmidt: World Cup door still open for O'Brien
Ireland coach insists Tullow Tank 'still in our thinking' despite being axed from much-changed match-day squad to face France
Joe Schmidt says the World Cup door remains open for the Seán O'Brien, but the Ireland coach had few crumbs of comfort for his star flanker after dropping him for tomorrow's penultimate Six Nations game against France.
The Tullow Tank came off the bench against England and started the wins over Scotland and Italy. Josh van der Flier has replaced him in a much-changed starting XV for the Aviva Stadium clash, with Jack Conan on the bench.
Seán Cronin, Quinn Roux, Jordi Murphy and Chris Farrell have also been omitted altogether after starting in Rome, as Cian Healy, Rory Best, James Ryan, Iain Henderson and CJ Stander return to the pack, with Garry Ringrose coming in at outside-centre.
Dave Kilcoyne and Ultan Dillane return to the bench ahead of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Beirne.
This is the first of six internationals remaining between now and the World Cup squad selection as Schmidt narrows down his options.
"I think everyone worries about their place in any squad at any time," he said when asked about O'Brien's omission.
"The problem for Seán is that he hasn't really had too much rugby and he was not happy with his performance against Italy.
"He came on against England and I thought he made a really positive impression and there's a temptation that you bring him in and he makes another positive impression again, and I thought he did well against Scotland as well. So it's not like he's not in our thinking.
"None of the players we've utilised so far are not in our thinking, but unfortunately later in the year you have got to trim that group to a very small group of 31. Any of those 31 can pick up an injury in the last couple of games and we need to have, we believe, 40 to 50 players who are going to be on the same page and at least partially prepared to step in.
"There was a slightly different brief to this year's Championship. We've been very much settled in our different selections in years gone by.
"We wanted to pose a few questions to the players. Can they slot in? Can they change around?
"Inevitably, that is one of the equations we're going to have to make a few calculations for later in the year.
"For us, it has been a really good challenge. We've actually lost a couple of guys we had planned to play as well…From that perspective, it has been frustrating.
"But, in the back-row, ironically, it is the same back-row that started against France in Paris last year.
"We're looking forward to seeing how they kick off right from the start and what Jack can bring off the bench."
So, having asked the players those questions, how does he feel they've responded?
"We aren't happy that we have performed at a good enough level yet and it is one of the things that is challenging for the players," he said.
"It was disappointing that we have not found that formula as yet, with all the changes that we have made, but we will continue to search for it because we have got to be adaptable enough that we can make those changes."