Joe Schmidt has urged his players not to go into their shells when Ireland get their chance to atone for their Twickenham nightmare against Wales tomorrow.
As chastening as last Saturday’s record 57-15 defeat by England was for the players and coaches alike, the inclination to feel sorry for oneself has been removed from the list of options presented to the matchday squad named for Cardiff yesterday.
Head coach Schmidt has retained just four starters from the team which delivered the heaviest defeat of his six-and-a-half-year Ireland tenure, with Peter O’Mahony named captain and moved from blindside to openside flanker in an untested back row that also features Munster teammate Tadhg Beirne, a Twickenham replacement, and Jack Conan at No.8 in his first game of the summer.
Iain Henderson is retained in the second row with a familiar partner in seasonal debutant James Ryan, who replaces rookie Jean Kleyn after an afternoon of line out misery in London. Rory Best steps aside and onto the bench for what will be his 119th cap as Niall Scannell gets his chance at hooker in an all-Munster front row, also including Dave Kilcoyne and John Ryan.
There is provincial familiarity at half-back where Connacht pair Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty start together for their country while clubmate Bundee Aki will be on Carty’s shoulder at inside centre, partnered in midfield with Chris Farrell, who had impressed at 12 against Italy but will be switched to outside centre tomorrow in a combination getting its fifth run.
Full-back Will Addison is another getting his first action of the summer following full recovery from a serious back injury. The Ulster star joins wings Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale in the back three.
There is an experienced replacements bench with Best joined by Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, and Dave Kearney, while Schmidt puts player versatility to a further test by naming Andrew Porter as loose head prop replacement and Garry Ringrose as potential fly-half cover.
Best and first-choice tight head Furlong, the head coach said, had requested more game time after their rusty first starts at Twickenham and Schmidt was happy to oblige. He also outlined his message to the entire squad as they put their World Cup futures on the line this weekend at the Principality Stadium ahead of Monday’s tournament deadline for naming the final 31-man squads.
The Irish management will submit their choices but have until the following week to commit allowing for injuries in the final warm-up game when Wales will visit Dublin for the second of the back-to-back fixtures on September 7.
“The message is probably to keep your belief, not to go into your shell. You can’t afford to go into your shell now. We’ve got two games left, we have to get out and express ourselves, we have to get out and play the game,” said Schmidt.
“I think the worst thing for us to do would be to be conservative or to take a step backwards because we’re hesitant or we’re not utterly confident in what we’re doing or the people either side of us.
And there’s a little bit of difficulty with that because Will hasn’t started at full-back for us for a year. We’ve got a few different combinations. Kieran and Jack is a combination at least and Jack knows Bundee well but Chris and Bundee haven’t had a lot of time together.
“At the same time, you’ve got a forward pack where that back row have never played together, Tadhg, Pete, and Jack Conan. You know, James Ryan with Hendy, they’ve put together some mileage but not nearly as much as James and Dev or Hendy and Dev but we need to accelerate some of the combinations because that’s kind of part of the formula.
“Usually when you’re getting ready for a Test match it’s about ‘right, how can we best take our opportunities and maximise our opportunities to destabilise our opponent’.
“At this stage, it’s really about how can we best maximise our opportunities to get some combinations together so that no matter what happens in the World Cup, we can balance up and have different guys slot in and be comfortable enough that they know each other well enough that we don’t get… guys kind of playing within slightly different systems.
“Because nobody has one defensive system. You can’t just have one. Most teams would have two or three and then they might have almost like a defensive special play where they might just try to do something out of the ordinary to try and disrupt an opponent.
“We need guys to be comfortable with different systems because that gives certainty to a player.
“He can predict, reasonably, what the guys either side of him are going to do so he knows what his role is.
“And we weren’t great last Saturday, we can build forward from that relatively quickly. We’ve trained well this week and that’s probably the only indication I can give you because that’s our best indicator of being well-prepared when we do train well.”