Gerry Thornley's team prediction: O’Brien and Kearney to start against Scotland
Kearney in line to be reinstated at fullback while O’Brien to bring experience to open side
Rob Kearney training yesterday at Carton House ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Scotland. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
In their time of need, and facing into what is a must-win game against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, Ireland are set to restore the experience and leadership of Seán O’Brien and Rob Kearney when the team and replacements are named at lunchtime today.
Kearney is in line to be re-instated at fullback, with Robbie Henshaw reverting to outside centre to renew his old Connacht midfield partnership with Bundee Aki in the absence of the hamstrung Garry Ringrose.
If so, this would only be the sixth time Aki and Henshaw will partner each other in the Irish midfield and the first since the third Test in Australia which completed a come-from-behind series win, and the first down under since 1979.
Having been of a mind to do so in both of the last two November windows but unable to do so because of injuries, Joe Schmidt had finally been in a position to experiment with Henshaw at fullback for the first time under his watch, and only the second time in the player’s Test career, in last Saturday’s 32-20 defeat by England. But with Ringrose now sidelined, it seems Henshaw will revert to midfield.
England’s clever and varied kicking game found plenty of grass in the Irish backfield last Saturday, and recalling Kearney’s renowned positional sense, anticipation and communication to the back three could prove particularly important at Murrayfield.
Two of England’s four tries came from kicks in behind the Irish defence, and two of Scotland’s five tries emanated from Finn Russell’s creative kicking game – the cross kick for the first of Blair Kinghorn’s hat-trick, and the grubber for Stuart Hogg’s try. The huge in-goal area at Murrayfield is also tailor made for Russell’s rich array of attacking grubbers, chips and kick passes.
Two more changes have been enforced up front due to the ankle and facial injuries sustained last Saturday by Devin Toner and CJ Stander, with Quinn Roux expected to make his full Six Nations debut in a new secondrow partnership with James Ryan.
The Irish management admire Roux’s set-piece game, and his ability to call the line-outs, as he does with Connacht, is expected to see him preferred to his provincial secondrow partner Ultan Dillane.
Jack Conan is in line to be named at number eight for what would be his second start in the Championship, with O’Brien to add further ball-carrying ballast as well as experience, at open side.
This would be a little tough on Josh van der Flier, who put in a typically big shift last Saturday when leading Ireland’s tackle count with 19, but O’Brien would also add leadership and a vocal presence in light of the quietness Schmidt detected before the England game and, it seemed from the stands, on the pitch as well. O’Brien’s presence would lift all boats, which the squad could do with following an anti-climactic and slightly deflating start to their Championship defence against England.
Van der Flier is likely to retain his place in the match-day squad ahead of Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock on the bench. There he will probably be joined by Dillane, who won the last of his 11 caps against Fiji in November 2017.
Otherwise, it seems as if the replacements may remain unchanged, with David Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, John Cooney, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour retained, all the more so as Andrew Conway has been ruled out with a calf strain.
Simon Berghan is expected to be named at tight-head prop in place of the injured WP Nel when Gregor Townsend unveils his team today. Flanker Sam Skinner has also been ruled out while lock Jonny Gray may be recalled.
Ireland (possible v Scotland): Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Tadhg Furlong, Quinn Roux, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Seán O’Brien, Jack Conan.
Replacements: David Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier, John Cooney, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.