Wednesday 21 March 2018

Strength from the bench, speed in attack and Joe Schmidt's one big gamble going into Six Nations opener against France

Joey Carbery Photo: Sportsfile
Joey Carbery Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Not exactly the old days when the Championship would roll around and the Big Five – yes, there were five selectors picking the side – might announce a raft of new caps for international action.

Between injuries, form in the successful Guinness series in November, and then top-ups on the form guide in domestic and European club competition since then, the issues for Joe Schmidt were more mild headaches than migraines.

The Jordan Larmour question didn't even register on the coach's pain threshold. It's Paris, Rob Kearney's form has been better lately – largely you suspect because of the presence of Larmour and Joey Carbery - so Kearney is selected.

Equally Jacob Stockdale's form in a dysfunctional Ulster side has complemented everything Schmidt has seen of him in green, so that selection too was a gimme.

It was a closer call at loose head between Cian Healy and Jack McGrath, but the comfort of having both of them -  two Lions with 115 Ireland caps between them – again makes it a comfortable little juggling act for the coach.

He would have had to think longer and harder however about slotting James Ryan in ahead of Devin Toner in the second row. Two of Toner's 53 Tests were in Paris – one win, one loss – and while going there is not the scary gig it was until roughly the turn of the century, having players with experience of its challenges is still useful.

But then so is having someone of Ryan's quality, underlined so emphatically for Leinster in Montpellier a couple of weeks ago. Although only starting out on his senior career Ryan has had his fitness issues, so perhaps Schmidt's attitude is to play him whenever he can.

In the back row Schmidt could have gone with the massive physicality of Dan Leavy ahead of Josh van der Flier, but opted for speed over the ground and the phenomenal workrate of Van der Flier instead. Having Leavy on the bench is a very useful weapon to bring to the fight.

Where the coach has taken a gamble is in choosing Joey Carbery on the bench. His lack of match practice in any position is one thing – one run off the bench since breaking his wrist in November – his lack of any game time at 10 is another.

His seven games for Leinster this season featured six starts at full back. And in the seventh, over in Montpellier, he came off the bench – at full back. Afterwards we asked Leo Cullen, given that the game was virtually won and the Six Nations was around the corner, would he not have considered throwing Carbery on at 10 for Ross Byrne?

"It's what the team needs," Cullen said. "Joey came on and did well."

Yes, but it wasn't much use to him if  he has to come on, earlier than planned, for Johnny Sexton on Saturday. At least the other back replacements – Fergus McFadden benefitted from the injury to Andrew Conway, and Luke McGrath has been rewarded ahead of Kieran Marmion – have more gas in the tank. And they’ll be unlikely to run short against France.

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