AS IRELAND’S INJURIES have mounted up at an alarming rate in recent times, providing a true test of the squad depth Joe Schmidt has been striving to build during this World Cup cycle, four of the five changes in his team for Saturday’s visit to Scotland were enforced.
Robbie Henshaw was due to shift from fullback to outside centre to renew his midfield partnership with Bundee Aki, after Garry Ringrose had been ruled out with a hamstring injury, but the Athlone native joins the ever-lengthening injury list.
Seán O’Brien starts for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Henshaw took a full part in squad training on Tuesday but the knock he sustained against England had not healed sufficiently, forcing him to miss yesterday’s final run out at Carton House with what Schmidt said was a dead leg.
Chris Farrell steps into the breach, Rob Kearney returns at fullback to win his 88th cap and the injured duo of Devin Toner and CJ Stander are replaced by Connacht’s Quinn Roux and the Leinster number eight, Jack Conan, respectively.
That’s now three of the first-choice second rows, Toner, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne, two midfield options in Henshaw and Ringrose, two scrum-halves in Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion, as well as Stander and Dan Leavy, all unavailable. Better now than in seven months.
The other change sees Seán O’Brien return to the number seven jersey in place of Josh van der Flier, who can consider himself incredibly unfortunate given he was one of Ireland’s better performers against England last weekend.
It is an exciting opportunity for the likes of Roux, Farrell, Conan and, indeed, O’Brien and a chance for Ireland to test themselves and, significantly, adapt to losing key personnel within their ranks.
O’Brien made a powerful impact off the bench at the Aviva Stadium and although unable to affect the outcome last Saturday, will start his first international game since breaking his arm against Argentina in November, while it will be his first Six Nations start in two years.
Admitting it was a tough call to bench van der Flier for the trip to Edinburgh, Schmidt explained the rationale behind his decision to select 31-year-old O’Brien in the back row alongside Peter O’Mahony and Conan.
“Josh was probably the best of our loose forwards on the weekend,” the head coach said.
“I just think with Seán, it is really just giving him an opportunity to work his way back in. He is very highly motivated. He does give us a little bit more ball carry, particularly in light of losing CJ from that perspective.
“I think he is incredibly tough to shift over the ball, he has got a great instinct for the ball and he has a great game sense as well. Not that Josh doesn’t, Seán has a slightly more mature game sense because he has seen the pictures, he has been in the environment longer and been in those Test matches more often.”
O’Brien’s experience and physicality is a welcome addition to the Ireland XV as Schmidt’s side look to bounce back from their false start and avoid back-to-back Six Nations defeats for the first time since 2016.
Schmidt speaking at Carton House yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO
Though he has been plagued by injuries in recent years, O’Brien remains a potent weapon on both sides of the ball, while his appetite for work after such a torrid time of late, will be a major boost for the visitors as Ireland bid to fix the areas — most notably at the breakdown — which led to their downfall last week.
It was more a case of getting O’Brien on the pitch, rather than a reaction to van der Flier’s showing at openside against England, and while Schmidt considered starting the Lion at number eight in Stander’s absence, Conan is more than deserving of his chance too.
“Jack Conan started in the third Test in Australia and I thought he played really well,” Schmidt continued. “And Jack has been going well.
“It’s not Seánie’s most comfortable position [number eight]. For Leinster against Wasps, it wasn’t as tidy at the back of the scrum. And Seán hasn’t played nearly as much eight as he has seven.
“When you’re introducing a new player back into a team, you want them to feel like they’re travelling down roads they know pretty well. We don’t want them trying to find the right route to get to where they need to be.
“Seán knows seven best. We wanted to have that clarity for him. On top of that, Jack Conan has rolled the sleeves up, did a good job in Australia and we’re hoping he does a really good job on Saturday.”
Elsewhere, Kearney will provide quiet assurance in the backfield and will be tasked with covering plenty of ground to offset Finn Russell’s tactical kicking game, while Keith Earls has shaken off a hip knock to retain his place on the right wing opposite Jacob Stockdale.
Bundee Aki is an ever-present in the Ireland midfield and renews his partnership with Munster’s Farrell from last year’s win over Wales in Dublin, while Schmidt will also be hoping for more control from his half-back pairing, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, after they were unusually off-colour against England.
“I think they are class players and class is permanent,” the Kiwi said of Ireland’s nine and 10.
“Form can be temporary and coming back after not having played in a month, a player [Sexton] might be a bit rusty. A player who has had a longer lay-off [Murray] and is getting back to their rhythm, he might be a bit rusty.
“So this period for us is super for them to build themselves back to where they need to be, and I think I said post the game that we’ve always tended to finish strongly in the championship and we’re going to have to, going away to Wales at the end of this.
“But whether we’ve been home or away, we’ve won our last game in the championship so I do think that we can build our way through this championship and I think those two guys, as a hub, will build themselves forward.
Sexton will win his 80th Ireland cap on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“I’ve chatted to both of them, mainly to offer them the same confidence that so many people have in them, including the players in the team, that they are outstanding contributors to our environment off the pitch, they are class players on the pitch and they are just the sort of competitive animal we need going to a hostile environment, which Murrayfield will be.”
Overall, Schmidt was positive about testing his depth chart further in a pressurised Test match arena seven months out from the World Cup, underlining his confidence in the players drafted in and their ability to perform the role asked of them.
In addition to the starters, Ultan Dillane is in line for his first cap since November 2017 off the bench, Dave Kilcoyne will hope for more game time after being preferred to Jack McGrath again and John Cooney, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour will be keen to make positive impacts later in the contest.
“I think the coaching staff, we’re pretty excited about seeing some of the guys, who’ve come in,” Schmidt added.
“Who we have, Seán comes in, Jack comes in, they are a couple of really good players. Chris Farrell, he came in once last season [against Wales] and got man of the match.
“I know that he is incredibly motivated to do a good job. Rob Kearney, the solidity, the experience that he offers at the back, that isn’t something that causes us great consternation.
“And I don’t know if you’ve looked back at Quinn’s moments last week, he was really good off the bench. I thought he showed a real physical edge and our lineout didn’t seem to suffer.”
Following a heartbreaking Six Nations opening defeat to England, Joe Schmidt will look to regroup against a dangerous Scotland side. This week, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey are joined by Bernard Jackman to assess the damage of last weekend and look ahead to the clash in Murrayfield:
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