Scotland v Ireland Tomorrow: Murrayfield, 2.30pm TV: RTE2, BBC1
Joe Schmidt believes Luke Fitzgerald is the man to lift a tiring Ireland backline and provide the spark to give them a chance to retain their RBS 6 Nations title with a victory over Scotland at Murrayfield tomorrow.
Schmidt will give Fitzgerald, 27, his first Test start since 2011 when Ireland go into their final game of the championship in Edinburgh tomorrow still in with a chance of landing the title they won at the death in Paris a year ago.
Yet the injury-plagued Leinster and Lions wing’s opportunity, in his first game under Schmidt since an appearance off the bench against New Zealand in November 2013, has come at the expense of Munster’s Simon Zebo, jettisoned from the matchday squad after nine consecutive appearances for Ireland on the left wing.
Fitzgerald for Zebo was one of just two changes from the side which went down to Wales in Cardiff last Saturday with Cian Healy switching places from bench to loosehead prop at the expense of Jack McGrath.
Schmidt’s reasoning is the need to freshen things up for the final push against a Scots side still without a Six Nations win under new coach Vern Cotter. Zebo, Schmidt said, was showing signs of wear and tear andfatigue having played every minute of the championship to date.
Schmidt revealed he had rebuked Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe for staying out wide and waving their hands for the ball when a massive overlap was on but their team-mates failed to find them as Ireland laid siege to the Welsh line but Zebo appears to have paid the price for what the Ireland boss judged to be a lack of freshness at the Millennium Stadium.
“I don’t think you can ever be certain about selections,” Schmidt said. “There was debate about whether we make the change there or we make the change in the front row or we make the change in any particular part of the pitch.
“There are players who played particularly well against Wales and a number of those were off the bench and that puts a bit of pressure on some of the starting players and there was a few other positions that were much discussed in the selection meeting.
“We just felt that Luke had trained really well, had brought a real freshness and enthusiasm and we just felt that we tapered a little bit into that Wales game. We certainly didn’t start the game with the same hunger and enthusiasm that we had against England. We were a lot more passive in that first 20 minutes and it allowed them to exert themselves a little bit.
“The same threat exists,” he added, “if we don’t start well (against Scotland). It was a little bit based around getting a really enthusiastic start and guys bringing a little bit of freshness.”
Zebo has the small consolation of having travelled to Scotland yesterday afternoon with the squad as a travelling reserve, alongside forward Tommy O’Donnell, another who can consider himself unlucky not to make the matchday 23, Schmidt preferring to stick with Jordi Murphy as his back-row replacement option.
He has in fact kept faith with the entire bench, resisting the game-changing potential of the likes of Keith Earls and Dave Kearney in the outside back berth for trust in the defensive solidity of Felix Jones.
Given the likely need for accumulating points with title rivals Wales in Italy playing beforehand and England facing France afterwards, Schmidt was asked if had considered opting for what were described by the questioner as “strike wingers and genuine try scorers” on the bench, of the ilk of the long retired David Wallace and O’Donnell.
“I think if either of those players were in the Wales game I don’t think it would have made any difference,” Schmidt replied.
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