The omission of Leinster openside flanker van der Flier, 22, from the matchday squad for Ireland final encounter of the 2016 RBS Six Nations was the only change from the starting line-up which put Italy to the sword in Dublin last Saturday. Yet it raised eyebrows given the impact van der Flier had made in his first two appearances on the Test stage.
Schmidt, though, felt the newcomer was in need of a rest after two bruising 80-minute performances and with what he described as an athletic and “incredibly combative” Scotland back row coming to the Aviva Stadium tomorrow evening.
Munster openside O’Donnell comes in for his first appearance since coming off the bench to replace the injured Sean O’Brien after 20 minutes against France in Paris.
“Tommy will deliver for us,” Schmidt said yesterday. “I know that he’s fresh and enthused by the opportunity and, when we announced the team this morning, he was really bubbling at training and that’s how you want people going into a Test match; you want them really excited about what’s coming up. There’s no doubt that Josh would have been excited, but he didn’t finish training on Monday, it has been a bit attritional for a young guy who, let’s face it, last year wasn’t playing a lot of Pro12.
“Twelve months later, he has put back-to-back Tests together and he’s come a long way in a very short space of time.”
Schmidt said van der Flier was fit to play but added that being unable to finish Monday’s training session had ruled against the young back rower.
“He had a few knocks. There was a residual fatigue that we had detected and at the same time when Josh came into the environment at the start of the Six Nations I actually said to him: ‘Look Josh, this is a fantastic learning opportunity for you, a little bit like someone like Robbie Henshaw, you’re here, have a look at Sean O’Brien and Tommy O’Donnell, this is a great window for you to train and learn from these guys in a Test-match lead-up and that will stand you in good stead because we think you have a future with us’.
“And there was never any indication that he was going to get the opportunity to go out and start a Test match, let alone back to back Test matches, let alone one being his first at Twickenham against England and the other be a nine-try opportunity that he got to race around and really enjoy.
“I know he’s disappointed because he’s a real competitor and I know he’s disappointed because he’s played really well. So I totally understand his disappointment.”
Schmidt’s only other changes have come on the bench, where he has recalled Leinster trio Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy, and Eoin Reddan at the expense of younger rivals Sean Cronin, last week’s debutant Finlay Bealham, and Kieran Marmion.
An unchanged starting XV means a 50th cap for Munster wing Keith Earls, who said: “I’m delighted, and 50 is a big landmark.
“The dream of one cap would have been great, and getting 50 is something special and something that I haven’t taken for granted with my injuries a couple of years ago.
“So I’m delighted but the win is more important and the team is more important than my 50th.”
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter has made three changes, two of them injury-enforced, to his line-up as he looks to become the first to deliver the country three straight wins in their Six Nations history.
Duncan Weir is back in the starting line-up for the first time since the World Cup, replacing Finn Russell at fly-half. Russell was concussed five minutes into Scotland’s 29-18 home win over France last Sunday. Lock Jonny Gray suffered a pectoral tear in that game so Tim Swinson is promoted from the bench to partner the other Gray brother, Richie, in the second row.
The third change sees the No 8 jersey change hands, Josh Strauss dropping to the bench as Ryan Wilson steps up.
Schmidt believes Scotland will be no less dangerous for those changes.
“Scotland are an incredibly resilient side. They bounce back at you really quickly. We all saw that stat after about 71 minutes in Italy; 142 possessions Italy had in the Scotland 22, Scotland had 28 possessions in the Italian 22 and yet Scotland were up by nine points at the time.
“So they don’t need too many invitations to spoil the party. They’ve got guys who finish really well. They’ve got guys who one-on-one will beat a player and will connect and get in behind you, and then very quickly they can start to hurt you on the scoreboard.”
S Zebo (Munster); A Trimble (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster) (captain, M Ross (Leinster); D Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), T O’Donnell (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
R Strauss (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), N White (Connacht), U Dillane (Connacht), R Ruddock (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), I Madigan (Leinster), F McFadden (Leinster).
S Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); T Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), D Taylor (Saracens), A Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), T Visser (Harlequins); D Weir (Glasgow Warriors), G Laidlaw (Gloucester) – captain; A Dickinson (Edinburgh), Ross Ford (Edinburgh), WP Nel (Edinburgh); R Gray (Castres), T Swinson (Glasgow Warriors); J Barclay (Scarlets), J Hardie (Edinburgh), R Wilson (Glasgow Warriors)
S McInally (Edinburgh), R Sutherland (Edinburgh), M Low (Exeter Chiefs), R Harley (Glasgow Warriors), J Strauss (Glasgow Warriors), H Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors), P Horne (Glasgow Warriors), S Lamont (Glasgow Warriors).