Miracles can happen, Ireland have proven that already this season.
Losing the services of Conor Murray yesterday for tomorrow’s showdown with England, though, well that had Joe Schmidt invoking the Queen Mother Champion Chase and an imploding Paris Saint-Germain as he searched for templates to beating the in-form side he described as his team’s “big brother“.
With England coming to Dublin chasing consecutive RBS 6 Nations Grand Slams at the Aviva Stadium and with it a world record 19th straight win for a tier one Test side to eclipse the All Blacks, Ireland needed to have their best XV on the field if the red rose was to wilt and Schmidt was to rebound from a second defeat in the championship last Friday in Wales.
Lions-bound scrum-half Murray is unquestionably the best number nine available to the head coach and if the bulletins from the Ireland camp earlier in the week are to believed, the Munster man was recovering well from the stinger injury he took to his left shoulder in Cardiff.
Yet come yesterday’s team announcement he was missing from the matchday 23, his place taken by the less experienced Kieran Marmion, who had played very well in replacing the starting nine after 45 minutes last week but has, by his own admission, much to improve on in his game if he is to be considered a genuine contender for Murray’s Ireland place.
Murray failed a fitness test on his problematic shoulder during training yesterday morning, with Connacht’s Marmion filling in for the 60-minute session and named in the starting XV, Leinster’s Luke McGrath promoted to the bench.
It is one of three changes to the side which was kept tryless by Wales in a 22-9 defeat, with Jared Payne in at full-back for knee injury victim Rob Kearney to provide a voice of experience behind the fledgling centre partnership of Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in the Ulsterman’s first Test since last November when he suffered a kidney injury against Australia.
The other change sees Devin Toner, previously Schmidt’s go-to lineout operator since the retirement of Paul O’Connell, dropped from the second row, with Iain Henderson promoted from the bench to partner Donnacha Ryan.
With Eddie Jones, who secured back to back titles with a 61-21 thumping of Scotland last week, enjoying the luxury of promoting No.8 Billy Vunipola and wing Anthony Watson to his starting line-up for England’s final push for glory, Ireland have been cast firmly in the role of underdogs on home soil this weekend as they seek for a best-case runner-up finish with a win which would see them hang on to fourth place in the World Rugby rankings ahead of next month’s 2019 Rugby World Cup pool draw.
Championship defeats to Scotland and Wales have also left Schmidt, who last November engineered Ireland’s historic first win over New Zealand, open to a question only directed at rank outsiders: “Can you win?”
Which is how Schmidt came to reference Barcelona’s almighty Champions League second-leg comeback to beat PSG from 4-0 down and the previous day’s big race at Cheltenham, won by Special Tiara at the expense of the red-hot favourite.
“Any team can be beaten on their day,” Schmidt said. “We’ve seen a little bit of that lately.
“Who would have picked Barcelona to turn around that PSG result, who would have picked Douvan to get beaten yesterday at 1/4, who would have picked us to win in Chicago at 13/1 in a two-horse race?
“That’s what people love about sport. We have to believe we can, we’ve got to go out there with that absolute belief that we can and we know that at the same time if we don’t get as much as possibly right we know that they will be too good.”
The title may be gone but Schmidt insisted a top-two finish was still the target.
“We’re an immediate focus team. The biggest (motivation) would be to get second in a Six Nations. In the last four years, we’ve won two and got third in the other one. To stay in the top three is incredibly important to us. And to be in the top two... we always knew it was going to be an incredibly tough Six Nations and we knew that A, we had to be really accurate and B, we’d ideally have everyone available and get that continuity throughout it.
“We haven’t been as accurate as we’ve needed to be... we haven’t been that far off that benchmark that we’ve set but we don’t have to be that far off. The margins are so fine.”
Sealing Ireland’s position as a top seed for the pool draw for Japan 2019 came second, he said. And then, of course, there is the added attraction of beating England.
“It’s probably in that order because the championship for us is very big and games against England, no matter what they are, are just big anyway.
“They are the big brother. They are the guy you look over your shoulder and you are a little bit envious of. You always going to try to get one over your big brother.
“I think that’s a natural personality trait but, at the same time, there’s a little bit of angst and anxiety when the big brother is looking over the fence.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved