Joe Schmidt has turned to Niall Scannell as the hooker to tighten up Ireland’s scrummaging power for the must-win second Test against Australia at AAMI Park tomorrow morning.
With Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong either side of him, the Munster number two will win his eighth cap in Melbourne, a little over two weeks after head coach Schmidt drafted him into the touring squad as a last-minute replacement for the injured captain Rory Best.
A surprise selection given Leinster’s Sean Cronin, the most experienced hooker on tour, had been expected to start after bench duty behind Rob Herring last week in Brisbane, Scannell has been tasked with providing extra “value” in Schmidt’s words to an Irish scrum which had been in the unusual position of being dominated at times during the opening 18-9 defeat.
A reliable thrower at lineout time as well, Scannell’s technique and extra weight were believed to have tipped the balance in his favour ahead of Cronin, while Herring will get a chance to further impress from the bench following a solid start in the first Test.
It was last week’s replacement front row of Healy, Cronin, and Furlong which conceded a momentum-shifting scrum penalty in front of their own tryline on 68 minutes at Suncorp Stadium.
The Wallabies pack powered in onto loosehead Healy and then through the joint between Cronin and tighthead Furlong to eke out the kick which Bernard Foley nailed to edge his team in front at 11-9 going into the final 10 minutes.
David Pocock’s try four minutes later sealed the deal and leaves Ireland one-nil down in the three-Test series.
It is Cronin who has paid the price, as regular starters Healy and Furlong get a chance to make amends either side of Scannell, 26, who wins his first cap since last summer’s second Test against Japan.
“We always came with the intent to give a little bit of experience to guys and to give everyone a little bit of an opportunity,” Schmidt said yesterday.
“One of the features from last week was the scrum, and we are hopeful Niall can add a bit of value in the scrum.
“We also felt that Robbie Herring got better and better as the game went on at scrum time and the other thing is our lineout was super last week and Rob Herring threw really, really well.
"So we know we are going to have to be really good at the set-piece. The (weather) forecast is mixed, so whatever it ends up being, it seems to vary much like Dublin does, it goes up and down, so there is a fair bit of thought and consideration given to all the selections but to that one obviously.”
Cronin, 32, will have to watch a game he would have imagined he would be starting from the stands. For all his impact around the field in open play and 62 caps of Test experience, it is believed the thinking behind the decision is that his lighter frame is being exploited by opposing international front rows at scrum time.
Cronin weighs 100kgs, 10kg less than Scannell, and Tolu Latu, the Australian replacement hooker he faced in that fateful late scrum at Suncorp Stadium.
Had he started this weekend, Cronin would have been a hefty 17kg lighter than Wallabies hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa.
Yet while that analysis may seem worrying for the Leinster hooker as we move ever closer to the 2019 World Cup, Schmidt offered words of encouragement for the player he signed from Connacht for Leinster in 2011.
“We know how good Sean can be for us, and has been over a number of years, so there is another opportunity next week, so we are probably trying to balance things through the three weeks.”
It is a hooker’s lineout delivery that concerns that set-piece’s leader Devin Toner and the returning lock was full of praise for the incoming Corkman.
“The Japan tour last year, I got to know him quite well,” Toner said. “He’s got pretty good darts so I have all the confidence in the world.
"Some hookers like to loft it a bit more, some like more direct, faster ones, so you do have to know what their strengths and weaknesses are. I’m pretty confident.”
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