Saturday 24 August 2019

Tony Ward: 'My team to take on England - Henshaw and van der Flier deserve to shade tight selection calls'

Comment

Henshaw: In pole position. Photo: Sportsfile
Henshaw: In pole position. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It never goes away you know; the annual feeling of optimism when Six Nations time comes around. New year, new squad, new aspiration.

There is a touch of familiarity about the extended panel of 38, although it does include uncapped players in Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell.

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All three should be on board for the experience, although given the injury issue at scrum-half Blade's bit-part at training could extend further.

For Joe Schmidt, the loss of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne is massive. It adds to the pain that each was named man of the match for their respective province in Champions Cup action last weekend.

The Ireland head coach bases selection primarily on current form and in that respect both - but particularly Beirne - have been on fire. We have strength in depth with Devin Toner and James Ryan nailed on to start and I have no issue with that.

Indeed, there is no guarantee that Toner would not have been starting alongside Ryan had one of the injured locks even been available.

They're going to need that strength in depth to reach the summit again, as five sides, Italy being the exception, are in with a shout of being crowned champions.

Schmidt has targeted a top-two finish and I think that is a reasonable aspiration. The Irish public will not share that view.

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In terms of expectation he has given the nation a stick to beat him with before he departs.

I say that half in jest but mindful of our current status due in the main to the man from Woodville.

Aside from the World Cup (still to be conquered), last year's sweep took us to a new summit. Who ever thought we would see the day when Ireland would take a Grand Slam, only our third, in an even calendar year?

Winning at the Stade de France and Twickenham just a month apart once seemed mission impossible.

In times past we were mentally beaten in at least one of those venues before a ball was kicked.

So 12 months on an even stronger squad is paying a high price in terms of expectation for what was achieved on that bitter Paddy's Day in March.

Can we make it back-to-back just seven months out from the one that really matters in Japan?

Yes, is the reasoned answer - but England, France, Scotland and Wales also have realistic expectations of overall glory this spring.

I will be amazed if there is a Grand Slam won in 2019 such is the form, strength and aspiration of each of the big five going into this Six Nations.

For Ireland, outside of a World Cup quarter-final and what could follow, the biggest game of 2019 takes place at the Aviva this day week when Eddie Jones and England come to town.

We will deal with the finer detail later in the week but for now it's all about selection and the 23 geared to make it a third win on the bounce over the auld enemy.

The big calls for Schmidt will be at centre, specifically who wears 12, in the back-row - specifically who is to wear the number seven.

Beyond that, Keith Earls should get the nod in the No 14 shirt but on current form his Munster team-mate Andrew Conway is a hair's breadth away.

Rob Kearney will be at full-back and it is testimony to his remarkable durability that he continues in the last line of Irish defence. He's a shoo-in once fit.

The same comment applies in terms of automatic selection to Jacob Stockdale, who is at the opposite end of the playing-age spectrum to Kearney.

Earls will be on the right with Garry Ringrose one number in at 13. To be partnered by? Now the fun and games begin.

Bundee Aki has been outstanding irrespective of the shade of green. He has made hay while Robbie Henshaw has been laid up.

Chris Farrell is a player I really rate given his ability to combine size with touch when on the ball. He lacks game-time and has been prone to injury but when fully fit and firing he is a massive addition to this squad.

Tom Farrell has been consistency personified for Connacht but like his fellow Connacht half-backs he must learn to walk before he runs at this level.

Stuart McCloskey is central to the Ulster resurrection but there is no place at the midfield table for him given the near embarrassment of riches.

Training

It will be one from Aki, Henshaw and Chris Farrell and while the training area in Carton (and no doubt in Quinta do Lago over the last seven days) will determine much, my gut tells me that the Henshaw/Ringrose provincial pairing will start given the opening opposition.

It would be really tough on Aki though, who has been a huge acquisition for the Irish cause. If he doesn't make the 15, I'll be surprised if he makes the 23.

That comment applies to Chris Farrell too. The half-backs are set in stone. So too is the front-row with Cian Healy again at loosehead and Jack McGrath on the bench, although Dave Kilcoyne has been very impressive for Munster.

In the circumstances the second-row picks itself with Toner and Ryan guaranteed, leaving a battle of the Connacht locks - Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane - for a possible place on the bench.

I say possible because there is the option, although risky, of including Rhys Ruddock or Jordi Murphy to cover both lines of the scrum.

Depending on the game-plan, as in the degree of fluidity intended by the Irish think tank, it should be Sean O'Brien or Josh van der Flier at openside flanker.

Were Dan Leavy fit he would again represent the perfect compromise but based on consistent form over the season to date Van der Flier deserves the starting call.

The bench should be instant impact, thereby seeing Jordan Larmour squeeze Conway for the utility role - although Joey Carbery's not too shabby in that respect either.

Sew all that together and it's not a bad looking side.

Ireland - R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (captain), T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; P O'Mahony, J van der Flier, CJ Stander. Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, U Dillane, S O'Brien, J Cooney, J Carbery, J Larmour.

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