Rory Best injury to decide if Schmidt retains same XV
Captain is a doubt with a calf injury ahead of Ireland’s final match against Scotland
The Irish team is expected to be unchanged for the visit of Scotland. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Rory Best’s calf strain remains the biggest impediment to Joe Schmidt retaining the same starting XV from last Saturday’s record-breaking 58-15 win over Italy when he confirms the Irish side to face Scotland in Saturday’s Six Nations finale at around lunchtime on Thursday.
Best’s injury appears to be worse than was originally indicated last Tuesday, and not only casts a shadow over his ability to train on Thursday but his readiness for Saturday’s game as well. That said, as captain, Best will assuredly be afforded every opportunity to prove his fitness, regardless of whether he trains much this week.
If so, then Schmidt will be in a position to name his first unchanged side in this championship, having made three, five and two changes to his starting line-ups for the last three games since the opening draw with Wales. Over the first four matches, Schmidt has used 22 players in his starting line-ups to date, and 34 in his match-day squads, compared to 18 and 28 in last season’s successful defence of the title.
Were Best ruled out, it would be no surprise if Richardt Strauss was promoted to the starting line-up given Schmidt and the coaching staff’s fondness for utilising Sean Cronin’s ball-carrying ballast off the bench. Cronin underlined as much last week when scoring his fourth test try on the occasion of his 50th cap, of which 42 have been as a replacement.
Presumably too, should Best be ultimately ruled out, then vice-captain Jamie Heaslip would assume the captaincy, as was the case when Best went off for the final half-hour last Saturday.
Otherwise the scope, whatever about the inclination, for changes to last week’s starting team have been reduced by Rob Kearney’s ongoing hamstring issues. Besides which, Simon Zebo’s performance in his sixth start of the season at full-back for Ireland, while not perfect defensively, will also have diluted the calls for Jared Payne to be played at full-back.
Payne’s return for his 13th test last Saturday, all of which have been at outside centre, appeared to improve the width and lines of communication in attack, as well as Ireland’s line speed in defence. Nor did Robbie Henshaw’s shift back inside to the number 12 jersey reduce his work-rate or impact.
Similarly, the decision to resist what Gordon D’Arcy yesterday described as the drumbeat for Ultan Dillane’s inclusion in the starting second-row by retaining man of the match Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner was vindicated by the performances of the two locks. That said, Dillane’s irreverent debut at Twickenham may also have been a contributory factor.
Two voluntary changes to the match-day 23 are facilitated by the return to fitness of Cian Healy and Eoin Reddan, who have both trained fully this week. Healy looks set to return to the bench at the expense of last week’s debutant and fifth member of the Connacht quintet, Finlay Bealham, as may Reddan, the other more experienced option, for another Connacht man, Kieron Marmion. This, however, is a closer call, each having been on the bench twice in this tournament to date.
Fergus McFadden’s try-assisting, try-scoring exploits from three different spells off the bench in three different positions last Saturday will not only quell the calls for others to wear the number 23 jersey, but will also make a fairly compelling case for his retention in the role of versatile backline cover.
Ireland (possible): Zebo; Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best (capt) or Strauss, Ross, Ryan, Toner, Stander, van der Flier, Heaslip. Replacements: Healy, S Cronin, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Reddan, Madigan, McFadden.