Joe Schmidt opts for an unchanged Irish starting XV
Jordi Murphy and Iain Henderson win places in the matchday squad
Joe Schmidt and the Irish squad beat a hasty retreat from their Carton House base in Kildare yesterday after fulfilling their media obligations in order to make their mid-afternoon flight to Heathrow. This being the first away game of Schmidt’s six-match reign, he and they were flying into relatively unchartered territory.
Helpfully and encouragingly perhaps, Schmidt has been to Twickenham as a supporter and twice as a coach, when a New Zealand schoolboys team containing Jimmy Gopperth beat their English counterparts, and when Leinster beat Ulster 42-14 in the 2012 Heineken Cup final. Leinster even had the away dressing-room.
That said, this is assuredly the toughest and most daunting fixture of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign to date, albeit one that offers Ireland their first silverware since the 2009 Grand Slam in the shape of an eleventh Triple Crown.
Emphasising the squad’s “player driven environment” Schmidt admitted: “We play for silverware. We have some key performance indicators that give us feedback on how accurate we’ve been, but in the end we’re results-driven because we have to be, the public are results driven and we would love to get a bit of silverware . . . ”
Schmidt accepted that what worked at home to Scotland and Wales won’t necessarily work against England, who have the best array of ball-carrying forwards in the tournament as well as the sniping Danny Care, and he was swift to pinpoint one area of required improvement, namely “defensively our first up tackle”.
“I think we have been overrated as to how effective our tackle had been so we are going to have to be very, very effective in our first up tackle with the likes of Tom Wood, Billy Vunipola, Dylan Hartley carrying,” he added, supplementing this with the threat posed by a young backline.
In possession, Ireland will have to be “well-resourced at ruck time”, adding: “They pick and choose their rucks really well. They don’t overload the rucks and they have got a lot of guys on their feet to defend but when they sniff a chance they are very destructive at the ruck and they pour numbers through.”
He cited the examples of Courtney Lawes, Hartley and Joe Launchbury “and then guys like Tom Wood and Robshaw charging through that ruck makes it very difficult to maintain a real tempo and continuity if that ruck ball isn’t stable and quickly delivered.”
Schmidt duly confirmed the first unchanged team of his tenure yesterday, although Andrew Trimble revealed a scare in the camp regarding some bloke called O’Driscoll on the final Twickenham leg of the great one’s farewell tour.
“Everybody took a gasp earlier on in the week when he took a little knock. We were all going, ‘What’s going on? Make sure we get Brian on the pitch.’ That’s how big an influence he is on the pitch and how important he is to us. And certainly that was an illustration of how tough he is and how important it is to get him back on his feet for us.”
But Schmidt assured us that O’Driscoll trained fully.
Stuart Lancaster would also have picked the same team if possible, but the absence of Dan Cole has obliged England to dip into a relatively shallow well of tight-heads by restoring David Wilson after just 47 minutes of rugby since December.
Although the Irish starting team and match-day squad have more than double the tally of Test caps (724) which England boast (302), as with England selecting the uncapped George Ford on their replacements’ bench, so Schmidt has promoted Jordi Murphy ahead of Tommy O’Donnell, in addition to preferring Iain Henderson to Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy to fill the void left by Dan Tuohy.
This takes to 14 the number of Leinster players in the 23-man match-day squad, plus their former main man Johnny Sexton. It seems tough on O’Donnell, although as Schmidt explained, he could benefit from a couple of starts for Munster while Murphy’s game time at number eight recently, allied to Henderson’s ability to cover the blindside, gives Ireland more options off the bench, with Peter O’Mahony no longer covering No 8.
The latter is assuredly the bigger consideration, given O’Donnell has seven games since the turn of the year (five from the start) to Murphy’s six (four from the start). Furthermore, it’s worth noting that Simon Zebo has more game time than Fergus McFadden of late.
At 22, Murphy is relative callow, with just one difficult Heineken Cup start under his belt away to Castres in January, but he’s athletic, hard-working and hungry.
“For Jordi, it will be a massive step up but there’s no way to escape that,” said Schmidt. “
It also sends out a message to the players that no matter how successful, the squad will never be a closed shop under Schmidt’s watch.