Devin Toner and Cian Healy may return for French clash
Payne, Rob Kearney also likely to start as Schmidt expected to retain tried, trusted
Two days out from the biggest games of their respective tenures, Joe Schmidt and Philippe Saint-André are expected to retain the tried and trusted when unveiling their hands today for Sunday’s Pool D decider at the Millennium Stadium.
In Schmidt’s case, this could actually lead to one or two relatively eye-catching surprises, for in addition to the anticipated return of Jared Payne and Rob Kearney, both Cian Healy and Devin Toner are expected to return to the starting line-up.
This means not only will Jack McGrath and Iain Henderson revert to the bench, but Keith Earls, despite scoring three tries in last two games and having been an ever-present to date, might also miss out.
Instead, it would seem that Schmidt and his coaches have opted to retain the starting wingers from last Sunday’s 16-9 win over Italy. Tommy Bowe underlined his return to form in his two-try display against Romania with a strong showing against Italy, including a couple of superb takes in the air.
Similarly, Schmidt has also seemingly preferred Dave Kearney’s greater physicality and strength in the air to the finishing of the in-form Earls.
No less than Rob Kearney, Payne was always nailed on to return in the defensively pivotal outside centre role in countering Mathieu Bastareaud and co. Choosing Cian Healy, world- class on his day, to start such a monumental game is understandable.
More surprising would be if Schmidt opted to start Toner given the outstanding form of Iain Henderson in preparatory games and at the World Cup.
Then again, Toner has been Ireland’s primary ball winner for the last three seasons, and Henderson is certainly better equipped to provide impact off the bench than Toner when the game loosens up with around half an hour remaining.
If this selection does come to pass when Schmidt announces the team at the squad’s base in the Celtic Manor at lunchtime today, interestingly, as an aside, it will be the same starting team bar one (Dave Kearney in for Luke Fitzgerald) that kicked off Ireland’s Six Nations’ title-clinching win in Murrayfield last March, as well as five of the bench that day.
It will be interesting to see who is picked to cover the outside backs on the bench, with Simon Zebo seemingly best- placed to do so, as he offers the most proven cover at full-back. Either way, as was always going to be the case, high-class, in- form players are going to miss out.
Saint-André will reveal his selection earlier this morning at the comparatively more comfortable and superior confines of the Vale of Glamorgan – normally home to the Welsh squad as well as both the Cardiff Blues and Cardiff City, and which yesterday was also home to the Welsh football squad.
Most bets on the owner of the white Lamborghini in the car park were on Gareth Bale.
The expectation is that Saint-André will retain 13 of the starting line-up from last Thursday’s 41-18 win over Canada. Similarly, the choice on the wings is the most debated in the absence of the unfortunate Yoann Huget, France’s one casualty so far.
Noa Nakaitaci and Louis Picamoles should return on the left wing and at number eight, after being rested last week on foot of being the only two players asked to back up France’s opening two pool wins over Italy and Romania inside five days.
However, there is a school of thought that the French coaches might prefer Remy Grosso and Brice Dulin on the wings ahead of the defensively more vulnerable Nakaitaci.
Dulin, far more at home at full-back, was not involved against Italy, but played on the left wing against Canada.
In what has become a notably and unusually clear and consistent selection policy, this would also mean reverting to all bar two of the starting line-up that kicked off France’s World Cup with a 32-10 win over Italy.
Wesley Fofana, at last showing signs of his real form in a French shirt and of a good understanding with Freddy Michalak, and the in-form Bastareaud are the established midfield combination, and ditto Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Michalak at half-back.
The scrum has become a weapon again since Rabah Slimani emerged alongside the outstanding hooker Guilhem Guirado (one of the few French contenders for a World XV) and Eddy Ben Arous. The lock pairing of Pascal Pape and Yoann Maestri faced Ireland in Paris two seasons ago, while the captain Thierry Dusautoir and trimmed down (these things are relative) number eight Louis Picamoles will pack down alongside either Damien Chouly or Bernard le Roux.
Their one apparent injury concern is back-up loosehead Vincent Debaty, due to a thigh injury, which may mean picking two tightheads on the bench in Nicolas Mas and Uini Atonio.
POSSIBLE IRELAND XV: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Paul O'Connell; Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien, Jamies Heaslip. Replacements: Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin, Nathan White, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Ian madigan, Simon Zebo.
POSSIBLE FRANCE XV: Scott Spedding; Brice Dulin, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Noa Nakaitaci; Freddy Michalak, Sebastian Tillous-Borde; Eddie Ben Arous, Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani; Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri; Thierry Dusautoir, Damien Chouly, Louis Picamoles. Replacements: Benjamin Kayser or Dmitri Szarzewski, Vincent Debaty, Nicolas Mas, Alexandre Flanquart or Bernard le Roux, Yannick Nyanga, Morgan Parra,, Remy Tales, Alexandre Dumoulin.