Joe Schmidt has made eight changes to Ireland’s starting line-up for Saturday’s must-win second Test against Australia in Melbourne’s AAMI Park on Saturday (kick-off 8.05pm local time/11.05am Irish time). In addition to half a dozen Leinster front-liners, there are a couple of mildly surprising selections in Niall Scannell at hooker and Andrew Conway on the wing.
Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy, Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose also return to the run-on XV, as Keith Earls shifts across to the left wing and Robbie Henshaw to inside centre. Andrew Porter, the uncapped Tadhg Beirne and John Cooney all drafted in to the matchday 23 on the bench.
Somewhat pointedly, Sean Cronin misses out altogether, having seemingly been held primarily responsible for the 68th minute scrum disintegration which led to Bernard Foley nudging the Wallabies in front entering the last 10 minutes last week.
It transpires that the omissions of Iain Henderson, Bundee Ali and Jacob Stockdale were to some degree prompted by little niggles which prevented them, among others, from training on Tuesday. Schmidt was always expected to alter his side significantly whereas, as expected, Michael Cheika has named an unchanged 23.
“A couple of guys are carrying niggles, Bundee Aki has that ankle and that’s kind of niggled away at him. He is able to play, but we’ll leave him out this weekend. Iain Henderson twisted his knee a little bit, again it’s just niggly,” said Schmidt.
“There’s a few other guys who didn’t train on Tuesday, they were just a bit sore really. It was relatively physical game last week, some of those contacts. Some of them starting and some of them aren’t, most of them trained some of them didn’t. We kept them out of the contact really.”
Scannell, who won the last of his seven caps in Japan last summer, will be making his fourth Test start.
“Niall Scannell played right through Six Nations last year for us, so he’s a guy who, when he got his opportunity, when Rory Best was unwell and he did a super job for us,” said Schmidt in reference to the Italian game.
“We’re giving him another opportunity to impress, with Niall – he’s a good scrummaging hooker and that will add a little bit to an area where we weren’t as strong as we normally are. With Niall, it is a real opportunity for him to probably galvanise that pack and take a step forward at scrum time.”
The 32-year-old Cronin has won 53 of his 62 caps off the bench, and for all his wonderfully dynamic ball carrying – which one would hope can still be utilised is his well-versed role of impact replacement – his effectiveness in the tight, and specifically the scrums, is clearly a concern following on from the concession of that 68th scrum penalty on the Irish put-in.
Last Saturday, Cronin (101kg) was brought on at the same time as the Wallabies reserve hooker Tolu Latu (110kg), who himself was replacing Brandon Paenga-Amosa, who weighs in at 117kg, which is some two and a half stone more than Cronin. Scannell is a big man, 110kg according to the Irish rugby website, and a renowned scrummager, while Rob Herring is listed at 106kg and Rory Best at 105kg.
All told, 11 of this side were in the starting lineup, and 17 in the match-day 23, for the Grand Slam coronation against England.
“It is a good mix, but it’s also an opportunity for guys to make the most of their opportunity,” said Schmidt. “Tadhg (Furlong) and Cian (Healy) came off the bench last week and they were disappointed they didn’t see through the positive end-game we were looking for.
“Johnny always brings organisation up front, so I know that he will be enthusiastic. Garry Ringrose did a fantastic job in the last two games of Six Nations, he will be looking to hit the ground running. Andrew Conway didn’t get to play, he was injured in the Six Nations, but did a great job in November. It’s a great opportunity for him.
“Jacob was a guy who didn’t train on Tuesday, he’s just a little sore. He’s fully fit but we’ll give Andrew an opportunity this week. Jordan gives us the cover in the back three and in the midfield as well, so hence he’s on the bench and we’ll give Jacob a chance to get himself right potentially for next week.”
The Munster-bound Beirne is in line for his Test debut off the bench after a superb season with the Scarlets having had a crash course in the meticulously detailed Irish operation overseen by Schmidt as presumably a lock come blindside.
“He has got good energy, he obviously has good instincts on pitch,” said Schmidt. “We’ve seen that over course of this season and last, particularly in the end-game of last when he played superbly in the semi-final and final of Pro14.
“We’re looking forward to seeing him out there, he brings a big engine to the job. He just keeps going. I do think that the pace of the game is something he’s used to, way Scarlets play, hopefully allows him to settle right in pretty quickly.
“He’s had one training prior to coming on tour, so to have had last week to settle himself and orientate himself and fit in. This week now he might get the opportunity for him to do that and then step out and potentially make his Test debut.”
After a long, intense and high achieving season, these Irish players were re-acquainting themselves with that losing feeling for the first time in 15 months and although “we trained well today”, Schmidt admitted: “We were a little but flat on Tuesday to be honest. It took some players a little bit of time to find their feet.
“We’re a long way from home, nine hours time difference and I’d like to think we’ve got a buit more rhythm to us. One of the really good things in the Six Nations was I felt we built through it and I’m hoping to build through the tour.
“We didn’t start the way we wanted to, we’d have liked to have started from a higher pitch and built on from that. With Australia naming the same team, we’re very confident that they’ll come well prepared and they’ll improve their game a little bit, so we’ve got to improve that little bit more because I felt they were very good on Saturday.”
Ireland v Australia (at AAMI Park, Melbourne, Saturday, June 16th – kick off 11.05am): Rob Kearney; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Niall Scannell, Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Devin Toner; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Dan Leavy, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Jordi Murphy, John Cooney, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour
Australia: Israel Folau; Dane Haylett-Petty, Samu Kerevi, Kurtley Beale, Marika Koroibete; Bernard Foley, Will Genia; Scott Sio, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Sekope Kepu, Izack Rodda, Adam Coleman; David Pocock, Michael Hooper (captain), Caleb Timu.
Replacements: Tolu Latu, Tom Robertson, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Lukhan Tui, Pete Samu, Nick Phipps, Reece Hodge