Wing Keith Earls is enjoying a rebirth in an Ireland jersey under Joe Schmidt. Having not played for his country for the first two years of the head coach’s tenure, the Munster star has now become an almost ever-present this season.
Today Earls, playing some of the best rugby of his career, wins his 50th Test cap in a side showing just one change from the XV which hammered Italy seven days ago.
Tommy O’Donnell returns to openside flanker as newcomer Josh van der Flier is rested after back-to-back 80-minute performances. Captain Rory Best shook off calf tightness to make his 50th consecutive Six Nations appearance but there is a change to the hooker’s cover with Richardt Strauss on bench duty and Sean Cronin, a try scorer last week on his 50th appearance, rotated out of the matchday squad. Also on the bench, fit-again Cian Healy replaces last week’s debutant Finlay Bealham as loosehead back-up while scrum-half Eoin Reddan takes over from Kieran Marmion.
Vern Cotter makes three changes from the team that beat France at Murrayfield on Sunday. Six days on, fly-half Finn Russell is still progressing through return to play protocols from the concussion he suffered. Duncan Weir replaces him for his first start of 2016 and partners scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, who will captain Scotland for a record 26th time. A pectoral tear suffered by Jonny Gray against France breaks up his second-row partnership with brother Richie — Tim Swinson gets the start with his place on the bench going to Rob Harley. Josh Strauss drops to the bench as Ryan Wilson returns to No.8 to reunite with John Hardie and John Barclay to form the back row that saw off Italy in Rome.
MEETING OF MINDS
No clash of coaching egos or approaches here as Joe Schmidt goes head to head with Vern Cotter. This is instead a duel with a difference, a former coaching dream team at Bay of Plenty and Clermont Auvergne now pitted against one another in the Test arena. They go back a long way, were on the maternity ward at the same time a dozen years ago when Mrs Schmidt was delivering her second child and Mrs Cotter her first and the odd bottle of fine French red has been shared since then. There may well be another glass downed this weekend for these are coaches on the same page.
“I absorbed a lot from VC,” Schmidt said of a partnership that started in their native New Zealand. “I just found that he was a fantastic foil for me and that we enjoyed each other’s company. I learned so many things from him, just about being decisive, just about trying to grow the key leaders in a team if you’re going to have a strong decision-making group on the pitch. Between the two of us, I think that we really enjoyed coaching together. When you enjoy doing something with a group, you’re always learning. Just being decisive, being clear in what you deliver. I just found he had a real ability to crystalise messages and then deliver them. There’s some things that I learned that I’m not, that I don’t try to do that he is. He drives an environment. “Les yeux de glaces” was his nickname in France, the eyes of ice. He didn’t have to say to much for you to know he was unhappy.”