Joe Schmidt denies one-dimensional tag as he makes two changes
Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose start against Scotland with Iain Henderson on the bench
Joe Schmidt ends this pre-Scotland media briefing with a clear challenge: if you are going to accuse his Ireland team of being one-dimensional bullies, bring some clear evidence.
Schmidt sought to draw a line under that perception in Carton House today while also declaring Iain Henderson “fully fit” for Saturday’s tilt at capturing the Six Nations title with one round to play.
Henderson does not make the starting XV as, ever the medium-term strategist, the national coach offers Dev Toner perhaps one last chance to deny the next great locking partnership – Henderson and James Ryan – from solidifying.
This is all part of his motivational game.
Toner was an ever-present in Schmidt teams until last March when the 31-year-old was ruthlessly dropped. Henderson took over the lineout and barged through England for a powerful try.
During this time Ryan was recovering from injury, before a brief stint as a Munster development lock under Paul O’Connell’s tutelage allowed Schmidt to take him on last summer’s tour of the United States and Japan.
Toner partners Ryan from kick-off against Scotland with an impressive array of numbers. It’s the 6’ 11” lock’s 43rd start in 53 Schmidt games in charge.
It’s his 56th cap, 49 under the current regime, while Henderson has 15 starts as a lock from the 30 caps granted in this era.
Henderson remains the only player yet to sign or reject a national contract that would ring fence this Ireland squad from now until the Japan World Cup in 2019.
“I think the three of them have done really well for us in the championship so far,” said Schmidt. “It was probably just a case of trying to keep some continuity into this game against Scotland.
“Iain is fully fit, absolutely. Iain could have played against Wales but it would have been a risk but there is no risk of him reinjuring himself.
“It adds to our last 20, 30 minutes of the game where an athlete like Iain can come on and Andrew Porter and Jack McGrath had a cracking 50 minutes against Italy, so we are hoping those guys can bring some real energy into that last quarter.”
Other alterations from victory over Wales a fortnight ago see Garry Ringrose replace the injured Chris Farrell.
“There are always concerns about players. Garry has only had six games in this entire season. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of options as is the case at centre for us now. Garry has been extraordinary when he has played for us. He was outstanding in Japan in the backline along with Keith Earls. We are hoping he can hit the ground running and get straight into that form – he is a smart player.
“It’s a needs-must situation but we have a lot of trust and faith in Garry.”
Tadhg Furlong returns at tighthead as John Ryan drops out of the squad and Andrew Porter returns to the bench following two impressive performances by the 22-year-old understudy. Jordan Larmour is poised to continue his electric rookie season off the bench, replacing Fergus McFadden, and Jordi Murphy’s selection means Jack Conan returns to a Leinster side that travels to Llanelli for the rescheduled Pro 14 match.
That fixture will not go unnoticed by Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby, mainly because Seán O’Brien and Tadhg Beirne will have a little breakdown audition in Parc y Scarlets Friday night.
O’Brien must prove that his latest injury, a hip procedure, is sufficiently healed for the Lions flanker to be added to the Ireland panel for Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day. Beirne is trying out for inclusion on the Australia tour in June.
“I’ll be watching how Seán leads the side. That’s of interest to us without a doubt,” said Schmidt
All the pieces matter (Jack O’Donoghue and Fergus McFadden will warm-up with the squad in case of a late injury).
Schmidt ends this media tutorial with the challenge: Look at the entire equation. Especially regarding stuff he feels people “love to beat us with a stick” about.
RTÉ TV asked if we should “expect more of the same as we saw against Wales, with one-out runners, direct-type, bully Scotland up front?”
Schmidt has shouldered that criticism since 2015.
“It’s ironic you say that,” he responded. “I would probably challenge people to do a little bit more homework and probably not follow the lead of someone who statistically doesn’t balance up with what’s said.
“I think there was some really good tight play and some stuff that went through the middle but there was some stuff down the edges as well – Keith Earls’s line break, Johnny’s line break, Jacob Stockdale in the corner; certainly that wasn’t a one-pass play. It’s two of the best passes you’ll see in world rugby. We’ve got to keep that variety to our game.
“At this stage we have made the third most offloads. It’s an area people have loved to beat us with a stick and it’s probably overlooked that there is some continuity to our play.”
IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong; J Ryan, D Toner; P O’Mahony, D Leavy, CJ Stander. Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, I Henderson, J Murphy, K Marmion, J Carbery, J Larmour.