Jack McGrath and Devin Toner selected to start against Italy
Joe Schmidt also brings Jack Conan and Dan Leavy into XV for second Six Nations game
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt had made four changes to the starting team that beat France for Saturday’s Six Nations Championship match against Italy at the Aviva stadium (2.15pm).
The backline is retained en masse but the composition of the pack shows alterations in each row. Jack McGrath replaces Cian Healy at loosehead prop, Devin Toner returns to the secondrow in place of James Ryan, while Leinster duo Dan Leavy and Jack Conan are promoted to the backrow in place of the unfortunate Josh van der Flier - he will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury - and CJ Stander.
Healy and Stander are included in the replacements, a group that also shows changes in personnel in Paris with Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion and Jordan Larmour, the latter in line to make his Ireland debut.
Schmidt has elected to rotate his squad following a physically demanding tussle against the French. McGrath starts a Test match for the first time since the Fiji game in November, having replaced Healy during the game against France.
Ryan, outstanding last weekend, was reported to be hampered by a minor injury concern following the game in Paris so Toner will win his 55th cap against Italy. Leavy made a huge impact when replacing van der Flier after 38-minutes and has been handed the starting role in the number seven jersey.
Conan gets his chance at number eight - he has scored four tries in his five caps - as Stander starts on the bench, following his huge physical contribution in last weekend’s victory. There is an element of squad rotation as Porter, Marmion and the 20-year-old Larmour are included in the replacements. Ultan Dillane was not considered for selection because of a family bereavement so Connacht’s Quinn Roux will cover secondrow.
Schmidt explained: “Joe Schmidt: “Some of it is mileage, CJ Stander had 42 cleanouts and 23 carries in the game in Paris and while not attritional for CJ, he’s in great shape, it is really probably rewarding some performances by Jack Conan in recent times and it is also that opportunity to keep that freshness.
“These Six Nations games do become mentally attritional. By the time we got back from Paris on Sunday evening, you had some fairly sore, tired bodies.”
He was asked what the two Leinster players would bring to the backrow and also the role that Peter O’Mahony would fulfil in striking that balance. “What’s visible with Jack (Conan) is his ability to accelerate and carry the ball but I think on the other side of the ball he’s been really impressive, bringing a really physical side to his defence.
“Obviously his ability to transfer the ball through the contact and before the contact is another impressive thing. His lineout work has been continually improving as well. It’s a whole ambit of things that he can bring to the party.
“(In terms of Leavy) he got straight into the game, carried strongly, got off the line and defended strongly. He took a super kickoff that was a little bit short of the 15-metres. When those sorts of things happen you want players to be decisive. And (to) just grab the game by the scruff of the neck and we think Dan did that.
“With Peter O’Mahony and his leadership experience there, I think with the two younger lads they will bring their enthusiasm, athleticism and real hunger. We hope that it (the backrow) is pretty well balanced. (In terms of the Italian backrow Sebastian) Negri was really impressive last week as a newcomer and that is balanced up by the legend that is Sergio Parisse.”
Schmidt pointed out that Larmour’s elevation to the match-day 23 and the likelihood of a debut on Saturday is based on current form. “I expect Jordan to provide what he has been providing at provincial matches; that electric acceleration, that change of direction, but also that assuredness under the high ball.
“We’d love to see all that and away from the ball, he has a super work-rate. We know that if we are coming under pressure, he will work really hard to relieve that pressure. There’s never a perfect situation, but there are certainly better situations if he replace Keith (Earls) or Jacob (Stockdale) on the edges, then having Rob (Kearney) at the back will be an asset.
“If he replaces Rob, then having Keith particularly with his experience on the edge, will be an asset as well. That’s part of what we do when we try to place a guy in, but you don’t place a player in and expect him to be looked after. He Larmour) has an expectation himself of what he needs to do. Hopefully he will bring those exciting elements to the game.”
The video review of Paris inspired mixed emotions, the satisfaction at eking out the result mixed with a couple of aspects of the performance that were disappointing.
Schmidt explained: “You are just delighted to get out of there with the points. It wouldn’t be too many years ago that any win in Paris was acceptable. We felt that we stayed in control of that match for a long time. To let Teddy Thomas, despite knowing how lethal a finisher he can be, to let him slip up the touchline and slip a way through us was incredibly disappointing and frustrating.
“In a Test match of that magnitude it only takes one lapse for a team to get back into the game or get in front; we want to make sure those lapses aren’t repeated. We want to stay in control of games. It’s hard work to stay in control of a team when you are playing in Paris.
“Yes there are things we need to be better at. Some of our platforms didn’t quite provide what we are looking for. You look at the first one, 43 seconds in, we get a dream platform and we are away and playing: 5 minutes 56 Johnny is putting the ball into the corner, we are 3-0 up and it’s exactly what we are looking to do in Paris. Those building blocks I felt allowed us to control a lot of the game but you have to be better than that. You don’t just want control, you want to be able to dominate and you dominate by building scoreboard pressure. There are a few things we will look back at realise we didn’t quite nail.
IRELAND (v Italy): R Kearney; K Earls, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong; I Henderson, D Toner; P O’Mahony, D Leavy, J Conan. Replacements: S Cronin, C Healy, A Porter, Q Roux, CJ Stander, K Marmion, J Carbery, J Larmour.