By Brendan O’Brien
Joe Schmidt has opted to attempt a delicate balancing act by tinkering with his choice of personnel for Ireland’s crucial Pool D encounter with France at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on Sunday.
The Ireland coach on Friday afternoon alluded to the importance of topping the pool while also looking ahead to the following weekend’s quarter-final and has thus opted to make a handful of changes for a game which they start having already secured qualification to the knockout stages.
Video by Dan Linehan.
Schmidt has made three changes in all to the team that started Ireland’s last outing, against Canada at London’s Olympic Stadium last Sunday, though the continuation of Keith Earls in midfield rather than Jared Payne is just as notable.
Injury enforced or optional, he was asked.
“It’s a mix of the two. We thought Keith played pretty well last week amidst a pretty flat effort and he played exceptionally well the last time he started in the Millennium Stadium. At the same time, Jared got through training on Wednesday and trained very well.
“But if we put him back into the game on Sunday it could aggravate the foot. There was a bit of swelling post-training on Wednesday. We felt it was prudent to leave Jared for another week. With the type of the game that is, we want to have a fully fit squad for that.”
Devin Toner replacing Iain Henderson at lock is another eyebrow-raiser.
Henderson has been immense for Ireland before and during this World Cup, usurping Toner who had worked a groove for himself in the second row alongside Paul O’Connell in the course of the past two years when a pair of Six Nations title was secured.
“Dev has been a big game player for us and he gives us a little bit more lineout capability,” said Schmidt at the team’s Celtic Manor base. “Iain will add value and, again, it is a case of making sure that we have a few things covered for next week as well.”
Rob Kearney also returns from his glute injury to take Simon Zebo’s place at full-back. Zebo, who has played well thus far in the tournament, drops out of the 23 entirely, just as he did on the last day of the Six Nations against Scotland having started all four previous games.
Schmidt suggested that that decision owed something to what he expected to be an attritional game in midfield and the more versatile Luke Fitzgerald has thus been offered a place on the bench as cover at midfield, on the wing and, at a push, at full-back.
Schmidt said he had no misgivings about Earls’ comparative lack of size opposite French centre Mathieu Bastareaud. Nor Jonathan Sexton, who will likely be targeted by the French side’s heaviest hitters.
“Limitless courage,” was the phrase the coach used to describe his centres Robbie Henshaw and Earls and he was similarly effusive of Sexton’s bravery.
In all, 13 of the 15 from that Six Nations clinching game in Murrayfield start again as Cian Healy, who has been eased back to fitness after his injury-affected summer, replaces his Leinster clubmate Jack McGrath at loosehead in the front row.
An experienced team, it boasts 778 caps.
Breakingnews.ie reporter Shaun Cronin talks to Irish Examiner rugby correspondent Simon Lewis about the team selection. Video by Dan Linehan.