Cian Healy and Luke Fitzgerald in line to start against Scotland
Joe Schmidt expected to retain Devin Toner in Irish lineout set to combat Scotland
Cian Healy: set to win first start of this season’s Six Nation’s in Saturday’s meeting with Scotland at Murrayfield. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.
Cian Healy and Luke Fitzgerald appear to be in line for their first starts of this season’s Six Nations when Joe Schmidt announces the Irish starting team and replacements to face Scotland in Saturday’s finale at Murrayfield.
Healy has been straining at the leash since returning from a hamstring injury which had sidelined him since September, restricting him to one appearance off the bench for the Wolfhounds against the Saxons, before missing out on the Six Nations opener in Rome. Since then he has made two appearances for Leinster, one off the bench, and appeared as a replacement for more or less the last quarter of Ireland’s last three games.
Although his 50th cap last Saturday was unfortunately marked by a knock-on when Ireland blew an overlap and he was subsequently penalised for not releasing to concede the penalty which Leigh Halfpenny landed to complete the scoring, the coaching staff believe he is now ready to start.
Although Jack McGrath has had a fine campaign, and scrummed particularly strongly against Wales when probably Ireland’s best frontrower, he was penalised by Wayne Barnes. Schmidt and scrum coach Greg Feek may or may not be mindful of this as well as Romain Poite and JP Doyle penalising other looseheads for not scrummaging straight at the weekend.
McGrath was penalised by Barnes for not driving straight at a scrum while Wales were down to 14 men after the binning of Sam Warburton. While confusion reigns as to the reason for the last penalty against Ireland after Healy drives Aaron Jarvis back, it appears to be against Peter O’Mahony at the behest of Argentinian touch judge Federico Anselmi.
Subsequently at Twickenham Joe Marler was penalised as England drove forward at an attacking scrum in the 17th minute, again for not driving straight, as was Scottish loosehead Alastair Dickinson.
Scrum infringements are often due to individual refereeing interpretations, and coaches and players talk of creating the “right impression” for them. Mindful of a refereeing pattern here, that might accentuate the case for restoring Healy.
The 27-year-old Fitzgerald won the last of his 27 caps as a replacement in the heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand in November of 2013, his only cap under Schmidt to date. He made his last start for Ireland in the 19-12 World Cup warm-up defeat against France at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in August 2011, whereupon he missed out on the World Cup squad, as was the case in 2007, despite being a Lions Test starter in South Africa in 2009.
Fitzgerald has had an injury bedevilled last few years, but after persistent groin problems, has enjoyed a run of 12 games for Leinster since the end of October, in which he has completed 80 minutes in all 11 of his starts. There have also been hints of his wondrous footwork and turn of foot and, regularly involved in the squad’s training camps in the Carton House, he has been knocking on the door for the last few games.
Surprisingly not included to add impact off the bench at any juncture, it now appears as if he’s about to replace Simon Zebo, whose standards slipped in Cardiff from the high of his performance against England.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s defeat, Schmidt had intimated that the impact of the bench – with Sean Cronin and Iain Henderson adding ballast to Ireland’s ball-carrying, and Eoin Reddan quickening up the tempo from the base – would give him and his assistant coaches cause for consideration.
Admitting that selection had been tricky “for the last few weeks”, he added: “I think some of the guys coming off the bench did a good job. It’s an expectation that they add value and I think they did. That will be part of the selection conundrum later in the week.”
However, when specifically asked about Henderson, it was interesting to hear him say: “You’ve got to put things in context a little bit. Iain hasn’t played a lot of rugby this year, nor has Seán O’Brien, nor has Jamie Heaslip in recent times, so there’s a few guys there that to be able to replace all of them is a little bit difficult. So we tried to manage those resources as best we could and we’ll try to do the same again next week.”
This might suggest that Schmidt and forwards coach Simon Easterby are also mindful of Devin Toner’s importance to the Irish lineout, given this is also a forté of Scotland’s. One of the principal factors in Ireland’s defeat at Murrayfield two seasons ago was the loss of four attacking Irish lineouts on the day, and Easterby’s comments on Tuesday were perhaps revealing.
“We looked a lot on Sunday night as we started to turn the page to Scotland, that in particular their lineout is good. Jonny Gray and Jim Hamilton in the secondrow, they probably complement each other a little bit. Jonny’s very much the controller of the lineout and has a great engine on him, while Jim is awkward at the best of times. He’s a difficult proposition and he makes things hard.”
Toner was on the bench that day, as was Sean Cronin and, most notably, Ronan O’Gara in what would prove his farewell Test appearance after Paddy Jackson had been picked ahead of him. Cronin might conceivably be putting greater pressure on Rory Best, but in all of this the scope for change is restricted by the limited time on the training ground this week.
Not alone is this Ireland’s fifth game in seven weeks, but last Saturday’s game was especially exhausting, with the ball in play for 41 minutes as opposed to the norm of between 34 and 37 minutes. And Schmidt also spoke of “not throwing the baby out with the bath water” after what was, after all, a first defeat in 11 matches, and a narrow one at that. IRELAND (possible): Kearney; Bowe, Payne, Henshaw, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross, Toner, O’Connell (capt), O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip. Replacements: McGrath, Cronin, Moore, Henderson, Murphy, Reddan, Madigan, Jones.