Ireland braced to face strong England Saxons side
Versatile players like McFadden, Gilroy and O’Donnell can stake claim to bench place
Tommy O’Donnell hoping to impress Joe Schmidt against England Saxons. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
England Saxons v Irish Wolfhounds, Kingsholm, 5.0pm Sky Sports 1
Joe Schmidt hasn’t yet taken charge of a Six Nations match. But that’s no deterrent to second guessing the new coach. An Irish Wolfhounds team made up largely but not exclusively of players from the summer tour to North America faces a traditional meaty English side. But Schmidt already has his starting team for Scotland in his head. Hasn’t he?
Who will play right wing where Tommy Bowe would be and what shape of body will fill the hole on the openside of the backrow where Sean O’Brien will not line out? Schmidt might be thinking of Chris Henry – in outstanding form on Ulster’s unbeaten run in Europe – for the backrow. And he has Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney for the wing.
But his bench needs to be filled and in that there is a science as well as some edgy competition among the Irish players.
England coach Stuart Lancaster’s dilemma is similar although his decision hinges on whether he wants to pitch in three novice England Saxons against France in their opening Six Nations game. Lancaster is looking at some wingers and a centre, with Bath’s Anthony Watson a possible starter in Stade de France.
The result matters in today’s match at Kingsholm because the winning team will perform better and the players will have probably played better. Whether that comes with stronger set pieces or cameo performances by backline players is for the gods. But there are a few with Anthony Foley’s Wolfhounds who should be quietly hoping this is their moment.
Munster flanker Tommy O’Donnell is one. Fergus McFadden is another. McFadden’s charm to Schmidt is his centre and wing versatility, although Robbie Henshaw is being groomed for a role in Brian O’Driscoll’s outside centre position if the great man falls.
But the bench, the front row aside, is a place for versatile players. Along with McFadden, Craig Gilroy fits the bill at fullback and wing as does Iain Henderson in the backrow and secondrow.
Assumptions are rife and for those not playing such as Dave Kearney, Paddy Jackson, Henry and Fitzgerald and who appear to have done enough, this match could be a double-edged sword.
Similarly in the front row, just who will back-up Healy, Best and Ross. Schmidt will have a hooker and two props on the bench. Last time out against New Zealand, Jack McGrath was cover loosehead with Declan Fitzpatrick the bench tighthead. Fitzpatrick is injured so there’s a chance there for Martin Moore to step up and for Dave Kilcoyne to put in a good shift before McGrath presumably comes on.
Popular acclaim, by no means the way Schmidt ever picks his side, would have Fitzgerald on one wing and Kearney on the other with either Tommy O’Donnell or Jordi Murphy at openside flanker. O’Donnell, particularly, a late developer steeped in Cahir GAA, has been eye-catching with Munster.
“A year on I am a lot more confident,” said O’Donnell this week. “There is no room to sit back. Last year I was a bit more overawed. Last year in Galway I was on a five-day turnaround so I had less time to learn the terminology. It was my first time in camp.
“This time I know the terminology, I know what to do. I know the work that needs to be done. I just need to take the opportunity.
“Sometimes you just need a bouncing ball to go your way, you just need a couple of breaks. Sometimes you are focussing on rucks and not freeing yourself up for a few ball carries.
“That’s what happened last year I think. I got myself freed up for a couple of carries, the system we were playing. The breaks came my way a lot easier.”
Foley expects a big forward battle and with Northampton flanker Calum Clark as Saxons captain there’s no fear of the home side lacking aggression, although a 32-week ban in 2012 for breaking the arm of Leicester’s Rob Hawkins will have heightened Clark’s sense of duty of care.
England, going for three in a row, have an inventive half back line with Freddie Burns and Joe Simpson and buckets of pace with Watson and Charlie Sharples in a side with an average age of 24.
Deep down coaches Foley and Neil Doak know there is little punter investment in the outcome but great interest in who will stand up and play their way to a place against Scotland tomorrow week at the Aviva.