Saturday 24 March 2018

Tony Ward: Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson should start but not Simon Zebo

Keith Earls was back to his dazzling best in Ireland’s pool victory over Romania on Sunday and is at the head of an illustrious queue for a berth on the left wing for the bigger tests to come against Italy and France
Keith Earls was back to his dazzling best in Ireland’s pool victory over Romania on Sunday and is at the head of an illustrious queue for a berth on the left wing for the bigger tests to come against Italy and France
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Two down five to go in Ireland's trek towards the holy grail. Joe Schmidt's men did not deliver a complete performance against Romania but, for the second week in a row, the impression they gave was that this is a squad on a mission.

The warm-ups and preliminaries are now consigned to history, and Schmidt could hardly be better placed as the heavyweight stuff begins.

The Italians might not be world beaters but they are a level up from what we have faced so far.

We were expected to beat Canada and Romania convincingly, but they were still impressive performances. Contrast them with 2007 and how we struggled to put Namibia and Georgia to the sword before losing our way entirely against Argentina and France.

Ireland now have a powerful squad of players, well used to winning and hungry to go where no Irish team has gone in the World Cup.

The Romanians were brave to a fault but Ireland controlled Sunday's match from start to finish. The 34-point winning margin was acceptable but could have been so much more.

Credit the 'Mighty Oaks' for their late try but it didn't detract from the Irish display.

The set-piece was better than solid, with both scrum and lineout providing top-quality possession to build the phase control to which we aspire for more demanding challenges ahead.


The work at the breakdown too was impressive, with Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy and Jared Payne particularly conspicuous in pilfering ball. In fact, from one to 23, every Ireland player contributed.

Now is the time to declare our full hand. The team named to face the Azzuri should and I suspect will be the strongest available, injuries allowing.

Cian Healy proved he is ready to start at loosehead

Richardt Strauss was typically busy at the tackle area but is still third-choice hooker behind Rory Best and Sean Cronin.

Devin Toner in particular and Donnacha Ryan did what was asked out of touch and in the scrum, but it will be Iain Henderson and O'Connell in the boiler house to face the Italians, with Ryan the most likely back-up.

The back-row pecking order is also unchanged - it will be Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, with Chris Henry on the bench.

Murphy offers versatility across all three back-row positions but in terms of upping the ante, Henry is the best alternative to the less mobile but tried and trusted trio deservedly in situ.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will steer the course from here on in but again on Sunday Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan oozed conviction at half-back.

Both men will be on the bench, with a big role to play.

On the assumption Rob Kearney is declared fit after Sunday's knock, he and his brother Dave will form two of the back three, leaving one place up for grabs between Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald - probably in that order.

Bowe was back to form against the Romanians and if the tactic is to pepper the Italians with box-kicks, the case for Bowe at No 14 is strong, but Kearney junior is the man in posession and in form.

Earls is on fire and I couldn't argue against his selection on the left, but it is some team that can afford to leave Zebo out.

In the centre, Payne has been Heaslip-like in his unselfish effectiveness. He is a banker.

The dilemma is who to play alongside him. On the assumption Robbie Henshaw is fit and firing, I suspect the management will go with the tried and trusted Six nations-winning pick at No 12.

I still feel it may need revision as we progress, but for now, though tough on Fitzgerald and Darren Cave, who have both done well, Henshaw deserves his shot.

Tony Ward's team to face Italy: (15-9) Rob Kearney, Dave Kearney, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; (1-8) Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip.

Irish Independent

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