Friday 23 March 2018

Healy's return, wing redemption and backrow bench battle - 5 talking points ahead of Romania clash

22 November 2014; Simon Zebo, Ireland, is congratulated by teammate Tommy Bowe after scoring their side's first try. Guinness Series, Ireland v Australia. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: John Dickson / SPORTSFILE
22 November 2014; Simon Zebo, Ireland, is congratulated by teammate Tommy Bowe after scoring their side's first try. Guinness Series, Ireland v Australia. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: John Dickson / SPORTSFILE

Tom Rooney

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has rung the changes for a game the Six Nations champions are expected to win comfortably. Here is what to look out for during the game.

Robbie Henshaw kept in reserve for tests to come

The Irish management have made it abundantly clear that Henshaw has fully recovered from the hamstring twinge which prevented him lining out against Canada, yet they have decided to omit from Sunday’s match-day squad.

Although it was thought he might be rested ahead of the final two pool games, Jared Payne has kept his place at 13 and will be partnered in midfield by Darren Cave.

Darren Cave, Ireland, is tackled by Merab Sharikadze, Georgia

A surprise inclusion in Schmidt’s squad, Cave has shown himself to be useful in both centre positions and will enjoy a familiarity with his Ulster teammate. If Henshaw does feature against Italy, he will be Payne’s third partner in as many games, after Luke Fitzgerald admirably filled the role last week.

The Henshaw/Payne axis is lacking game time together, which will hopefully not prove costly when they encounter Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareuad down the line.

Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo offered a chance at redemption

It’s true that the Ulster wing had been far from his scintillating best, but Ireland’s final World Cup warm-up game against England at Twickenham proved to be a nadir for the Monaghan native.

Johnny May bounced Bowe with relative ease to dot down for England’s first try and his searing pace regularly proved too hot to handle for the Ulster winger. What’s more, Bowe’s kick-chase game was uncharacteristically lethargic, while he looked overly timid with ball in hand.

Tommy Bowe scored Ireland's second try

Bowe's difficulties were compounded by Dave Kearney’s fine display in the loss to Wales in the Aviva and in the England game, which he added to with an impressive try scoring outing against Canada in Ireland’s Pool D opener.

The two-time Lion now appears to be playing for a spot on the bench as supposed to a starting berth for the pivotal clashes with Italy and France, but Romania should be the just the sort accommodating opponents to facilitate a player low on confidence with the time and space to rediscover his touch.

Joe Schmidt has handed Bowe a lifeline, so now is the time to remind the coach exactly what he’s capable of.

Zebo, like Bowe, was found wanting defensively on occasions against England as George Ford targeted him time and again with cross-field kicks and garryowens, leading to Anthony Watson’s try.

In-form Simon Zebo scored another try for Munster

It was curious to watch, because Zebo had looked in fine fettle in the previous warm-up games, and was certainly challenging for a place on the left-wing. However, events at Twickenham have set him back.

Picked at full-back again, the Cork native has everything to play for.

Fit-again Cian Healy back in the starting line-up

Perhaps the powerful Leinster prop is just made of sterner stuff than us mere mortals because, once more, when Ireland need him most, he has clawed his way back from serious injury.

The Leinster loose head had surgery to repair a prolapsed a little over four months ago, and has beaten all odds to take his place in an all new Irish front row -featuring Nathan White and Richardt Strauss.

After 19 minutes off the bench against Canada, the 28-year-old will make only his second start for Ireland in 19 months, having torn his hamstring clean off the bone last September.

Read more: Keen student Healy seeking extra edge in bid to reclaim No 1 shirt

It would be remiss not mention the excellent scrummaging performances put in by Jack McGrath, but lacks Healy’s bally-carrying ferocity. Few front rowers it must be said come close to his dynamic ability with ball in hand.

The best case scenario for tomorrow would see Healy come through unscathed and ready to make an impact off the bench against Italy. If not, Ireland will be relying on Tadhg Furlong - a natural tight head with next to no international experience - for cover in the number one jersey.

Henry and Murphy go head-to-head for place on the bench for Italy and France games

The back row, like the back three, is an area where Ireland are not stuck for choice though, in the case of the former, the pecking order is well established. Injury notwithstanding, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip will start all the games after Sunday, but the chance to deputise for them remains up for grabs.

Both Henry and Murphy featured heavily during the warm-up games, while the Ulster open-side came off the bench for Sean O’Brien against Canada.

Chosen at blind-side, Murphy has been frequently trusted by Schmidt due to his versatility and tactical adherence. However, in Ireland’s defeat to Wales at the Aviva, where he played at 7, the Leinster man was schooled by specialist Justin Tipuric.

Read more: 12 changes for Joe Schmidt as Cian Healy returns for Romania clash, but Robbie Henshaw remains absent

Murphy simply did not get a look in at the breakdown, an area where Romania excelled in their loss to France; the Oaks forced an impressive 11 turnovers.

Henry, on the other hand, is an out-and-out open-side; a useful auxiliary conduit between backs in forwards, and a nuisance at ruck time. Joe Schmidt has always favoured utility in his time with Ireland so Henry may have to make a compelling case if he is to have any hope of make the match 23 for the clash with Italy.

New half-backs as Sexton gets the day off

By selecting Ian Madigan at out-half, Schmidt has demonstrated that the Leinster playmaker is certain to be Johnny Sexton’s back-up as the tournament moves forward. Madigan came on to great effect against Canada and, with a fine break and sumptuous pass, created Payne’s try.

Some will argue that Paddy Jackson, who has made the bench, has the better game-management skills; however, he lacks Madigan’s nerve from the tee and all-round dynamism, factors which have not been lost on the coach.

Eoin Reddan will partner his club mate at half-back, with Conor Murray among the substitutes. The former Wasps scrum-half, often in tandem with Madigan, tends to increase the pace with which Ireland play.

The duo have more than enough nous to carve up their less refined opponents.

Ireland (to play Romania) – S Zebo; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, K Earls; I Madigan, R Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, N White; D Ryan, D Toner; J Murphy, C Henry, J Heaslip (capt). Reps – S Cronin, J McGrath, T Furlong,  P O’Connell,  S O’Brien,  C Murray,  P Jackson, R Kearney.

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