Joe Schmidt to back the players that beat New Zealand for England opener
Murray’s return at scrumhalf and Henshaw at fullback likely to be the only changes
Robbie Henshaw has won only one of his 36 caps at fullback but it is believed to be his favourite position. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Allowing for the subsequent jaunt against the USA, last time out – to all intents and purposes – Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time on home soil. Understandably therefore, Joe Schmidt is of a mind to return to that trusted line-up, with a couple of notable exceptions, when unveiling Ireland’s selection for Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations opener against England at the Aviva Stadium (4.45pm) at lunchtime today.
Conor Murray, ruled out back then with a neck issue, was always going to return in place of the injured Kieran Marmion, and the only other anticipated alteration from the starting XV against New Zealand could see Robbie Henshaw come in at fullback in place of Rob Kearney.
Arguably some of the calls amongst the replacements, which were still be finalised this morning, will cause Schmidt and his assistant coaches, more debate. Again though, these selections are likely to closely resemble – where possible – those for the All Blacks game.
It’s a big ask of Henshaw, whose only game at fullback for Ireland was his first of 36 Tests against the USA in June 2013. In his three seasons with Leinster, he has started 32 games and all of them in midfield, albeit he moved there for the last 34 minutes against Benetton in October.
Nonetheless, it is understood to be Henshaw’s favourite position and the one in which he first cut his teeth with Connacht and in such style that Eric Elwood vowed his young star would definitely become a regular Irish international.
The player’s own desire to play there and his experience from his Connacht days at fullback should see him through. It also means Ireland can retain the Bundee Aki-Garry Ringrose midfield combination.
Kearney has only played three games since the November window, and last week’s outing against the Scarlets was only his second in the last seven. Accordingly, he looked rusty, and missed three tackles.
Brian O’Driscoll, for one, believes that the Aki-Ringrose combination deserves to be retained.
“You have to remember too what is the last memory of them in a green jersey? It was winning against the all Blacks,” said O’Driscoll, adding: “It’s pretty difficult to drop Bundee right now. It really is. Garry has obviously been playing very well and Robbie did well in his 60 minutes (for Leinster). He is the sort of guy that could be thrown into that environment, no problem.”
“All things being equal, you’ve probably got to go with the guys that are in possession of the jersey. When you’re in possession of the jersey and you’ve gone really well, it is very hard for you to be dropped. It would be very, very harsh on Bundee to not get a starting berth, considering the year that he’s had. He has been consistently good for Connacht. He is a real talisman. He is a go-to. It is not as though he has just peaked in Ireland green.”
Retaining Aki and Ringrose in midfield, with Henshaw at fullback, is a means of getting Ireland’s best players on the park and picking those in the best form.
As for the bench, Jack McGrath, omitted from Leinster’s matchday squad against Toulouse before being recalled against Wasps, is coming under increasing pressure from David Kilcoyne, but like Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter, he should be retained.
Ditto, perhaps, Jordi Murphy – despite the recent return of Sean O’Brien – Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour. Iain Henderson’s enforced absence, along with that of Tadhg Beirne, opens the door for Ultan Dillane, initially chosen ahead of Quinn Roux in the 38-man squad. That said, Roux has more experience of the Irish set-up since then and of calling lineouts.
Similarly, John Cooney is likely to be on the bench ahead of Caolin Blade, while it is also a measure of the competition for the number 23 jersey, which demands versatility and impact ability, that Andrew Conway and Will Addison will miss out.
IRELAND (possible) v England: R Henshaw; K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, T Furlong, D Toner, J Ryan, P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, CJ Stander.
Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, U Dillane, J Murphy, J Cooney, J Carbery, J Larmour.