Seán O'Brien to be omitted as Schmidt rings changes for France
Van der Flier’s return at open side to be one of six changes from the pack in Rome
Sean O’Brien: It’s hard to think of him ever being omitted out of choice by either Schmidt or Declan Kidney since establishing himself as a regular in the Irish team in 2011. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Seán O’Brien has seemingly been omitted from the Irish match-day 23 for Sunday’s penultimate Six Nations meeting with France at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 3pm).
In his place, Joe Schmidt is expected to name Josh van der Flier at open side in making around seven changes from the starting XV from the 26-16 win over Italy in Rome a fortnight ago.
In the continuing absence of Robbie Henhsaw, the fit-again Garry Ringrose is in line to be reunited with Bundee Aki after missing the wins over Scotland and Italy. This may prove to be the only alteration in an otherwise unchanged back line.
Up front though, there could be up to six changes from the starting pack in Rome, with captain Rory Best and Cian Healy to return to the front row alongside Tadhg Furlong. James Ryan, rested for the third time against Italy in the last round, is likely to be restored along with the fit again Iain Henderson. This will be their sixth Test start together, and first since the win over Argentina last November.
CJ Stander is also likely to slot back into the middle of the back row after missing the wins over Scotland and Italy due to the fractured cheekbone and eye socket he sustained in the early stages of the defeat by England.
In addition to promoting van der Flier at the expense of O’Brien, it’s anticipated that the replacements’ bench will see a few alterations as well, with Niall Scannell picked ahead of Seán Cronin who, no matter how it is dressed up, has paid the price for the three lost lineouts while he was making his first Six Nations start in Rome, even though another two were lost after the introduction of Scannell.
Tadhg Beirne is back in the mix to cover second row as well as the Connacht pair of Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux, who both started in the Stadio Olimpico. Despite one knock-on, Dillane’s high tackle count of 20 and strong form of late may see him retained in the 23, while Jack Conan is expected to return to the squad on the bench despite the more proven versatility across the back row of O’Brien and the latter’s leadership.
Even though Schmidt explained that O’Brien’s return to Leinster for training was due to his recent workload, that was an ominous sign for the 55-times capped O’Brien, who has also played five Tests for the Lions and was arguably the forward of the series against the All Blacks the summer before last.
In his stead, Peter O’Mahony, the fit-again CJ Stander, van der Flier, Conan and the recuperating Dan Leavy were all part of the Irish squad’s three-day camp in Belfast last week.
For all of O’Brien’s portfolio of injuries, which cruelly saw him miss out on both wins over the All Blacks and last season’s Grand Slam campaign, it’s hard to think of him ever being omitted out of choice by either Schmidt or Declan Kidney since establishing himself as a regular in the Irish team in the 2011 Six Nations.
Contracted until the end of the World Cup, O’Brien will be reunited with Kidney after recently signing a three-year deal with the Premiership-bound London Irish, but it would be decidedly unwise to suggest this might be the end of the 32-year-old’s Test career.
In another change to the match-day 23 to face France, Kieran Marmion is also expected to be named on the bench as cover for Conor Murray after recently returning to action with Connacht, for whom he scored two tries in their handsome win over the Ospreys last weekend.
IRELAND (possible) v France: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Iain Henderson; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.