Devin Toner and Rob Kearney set to start for Ireland against All Blacks
Gerry Thornley’s team prediction: Joe Schmidt looks like reverting to tried and trusted
Ireland’s Rob Kearney and Jonathan Sexton during training ahead of their Guinness Series meeting with the All Blacks. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Joe Schmidt could make around four changes to the Irish starting line-up for Saturday’s much anticipated meeting with the back-to-back World champions New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 7pm), albeit three of them are injury-related. In this he looks set to revert to the tried and trusted.
All the indications are that the team and replacements will not be finalised until Thursday before confirmation by Schmidt at lunchtime, but it will be a surprise if two of the stalwarts under Schmidt’s watch, the 32-year-old duo of Devin Toner and the fit-again Rob Kearney, are not re-instated, with Iain Henderson and Jordan Larmour reverting to the bench.
Leavy, Ringrose and Kearney were all on the starting XV at Twickenham for Ireland’s Grand Slam coronation, with Toner on the bench. Henderson started in South West London, and the only other change from that XV would be Kieran Marmion, who was also in the 23 that day, in place of the injured Conor Murray.
The 6’ 10” Toner has played more matches in Schmidt’s five years-plus at the helm (55 out of 60) than any other player and his value as Ireland’s primary ball-winner at both line-outs and restarts was re-affirmed by the manner both those aspects of Ireland’s game misfired last Saturday against the Pumas, when Henderson was calling the lineouts.
Furthermore, by then, Brodie Retallick had taken a wrecking ball to England’s lineout, repeatedly beating Maro Itoje to Jamie George’s throws, and the lineout is the lifeblood of Ireland’s play, both its most regular access point into games and its main source of tries.
Leavy’s impact as a replacement for O’Brien in the second-half last week was a reminder of his Six Nations form and left little argument as to the identity of Ireland’s openside.
Luke McGrath also made a good impact off the bench against the Pumas, emulating Marmion in scoring a try off a dominant scrum and quickening the tempo. But replacement scrumhalves ought to do that, and Marmion should understandably hold on after being a regular member of the squad for the last three years.
Ringrose was always likely to return at outside centre once fit given he adds so much more balance to Ireland’s attacking game, and the question as to who should partner him has again been deferred by Robbie Henshaw’s injured hamstring.
So Bundee Aki will go up against his native New Zealanders and the All Blacks team he once dreamed of representing on what should be a memorable and emotional day for the Connacht player and his family.
Like a good goalkeeper who communicates clearly, comes for crosses and dominates his area, Kearney spreads calm, and no less than the aerial duel at lineout time, his presence would strengthen Ireland’s hand.
Kearney is the only player to have started all 10 of Ireland’s matches in the 2009 and 2018 Grand Slam campaigns, and what’s more he has started all 20 games of Ireland’s four titles since 2009. It would be a major surprise if Schmidt and co did not restore him.
The bench must have been more of a conundrum than might normally be the case for Schmidt and his assistant coaches. An improved scrummager this season to add to his dynamic ball carrying, David Kilcoyne is banging on the door at loose-head, and so too most obviously is Tadhg Beirne.
But Henderson has been an integral part of this squad for many of the good days in recent times, and is even better versed in covering second-row and lock. He has also been a regular part of training this week apparently, with Beirne there and on standby.
Schmidt, understandably, referenced Josh van der Flier’s big involvements against the All Blacks in both Chicago and the Aviva two Novembers ago in playing the last hour as replacements for Jordi Murphy and CJ Stander, and that seemed pointed. Van der Flier looks favourite to be named on the bench ahead of Murphy, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan.
Andrew Conway, Will Addison and Jordan Larmour can all have claims to the ‘23’ jersey, but the latter is not only more in situ, but if the going is getting tough on Saturday, Larmour also has X factor.
And that would mean all bar Murray and Murphy of the 23 who were on duty in Twickenham last March are back in harness, with Luke McGrath and van der Flier (who were both on duty in that campaign) completing the squad.
Probable Ireland team: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Kieran Marmion; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander.