Cian Healy will have to come cold to the World Cup later this month after the Leinster loosehead was omitted from the Ireland team to face England in the last of the four warm-up games, in Twickenham on Saturday.
Held back all summer due to the after-effects of neck surgery, the word from camp has for some time been that of a man making steady progress, but he will again watch on from afar this weekend.
Jack McGrath instead starts at loosehead in a strong side - one that is close to full-strength - with the other notable point being that of Munster’s Simon Zebo who starts at full-back ahead of Rob Kearney who is also omitted from the bench.
Kearney was excellent against Wales last weekend, but Zebo has done himself little harm in his outings this last month or so and is emerging as an overdue contender for the 15 jersey after too many seasons where Kearney was shoo-in.
The inclusion of Zebo in Kearney’s stead still came as a surprise when the side was revealed in Carton House on Thursday lunchtime, though Schmidt insisted that the latter is fit and that the selection owed simply to the need to tick all the boxes while they could.
“We felt it was important to get Simon a bit more time at full-back once we decided that he was going to cover full-back for us,” said the Kiwi coach, “and for Dave Kearney and Tommy Bowe to get another start.”
Indeed, Dave Kearney starts again on one wing with Bowe stationed on the other. Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw hold the centre together for the first time this season while Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray provide the tunes to dance to from the half-back berths.
The pack is as close to first-choice as is possible with Healy’s injury. McGrath will be backed up by Tadhg Furlong despite the latter’s lack of experience at loosehead while Nathan White covers for Mike Ross at tight.
In all, there are seven changes from the side that lost 16-10 to Wales last Saturday with three of those out back - Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls are fit after their knocks but rested - and four in the pack.
Iain Henderson is another among those who will play no part this time out, that despite his standout display against Wales at lock last week, though Schmidt evaded the request to share his thinking as to who would start alongside Paul O’Connell in that second row come the tournament.
“Iain has had two games, Dev (Toner) has had a cameo by comparison. It is good to get that combination (with O’Connell) back together as well. They’ve served us really well in the last two Six Nations.
“Iain has given us the right sort of headache. It wasn’t a form selection, it was a balance of game time and opportunity.”
Ireland: S Zebo; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Replacements: R Strauss, T Furlong, N White, D Ryan, C Henry, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Cave.
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