Joe Schmidt may have thought long and hard about the make-up of Ireland’s second row for tomorrow’s Six Nations clash with Scotland but the inclusion of Johnny Sexton was never in doubt, whatever about the fly-half’s off-day with the boot last time out.
NatWest 6 Nations
Tomorrow: Aviva Stadium, 2.15pm
Referee: Wayne Barnes, England
TV: TV3, ITV
Bet: Ireland 2/9
Scotland 16/5 Draw 22/1
Ireland v Scotland
Just two changes from the side which overcame Wales in Dublin in round three to keep a first Grand Slam since 2009 in Ireland’s sights, with a fit-again Tadhg Furlong returning to the front row at tighthead and outside centre Garry Ringrose drafted in without any gametime since January 6 to provide the sticking plaster on an injury-hit midfield.
Iain Henderson has also proved his fitness after hamstring problems sustained against Italy in round two kept him out of the 37-27 win over the Welsh but the head coach Schmidt has retained his second row from that game and stuck with Devin Toner and James Ryan.
What was never in doubt was that Sexton would once again pull on the number 10 jersey this weekend, having overcome the dead glute muscle he copped in the closing minutes of the Wales victory.
Nor was his poor goal-kicking form in that game, slotting just three of seven shots at goal, with two penalty and two conversion misses, any reason for Schmidt to feel concerned, the head coach making his thoughts perfectly clear that Sexton’s worth to his team extends way beyond his success rate off the kicking tee.
“I think goal-kicking is slightly more peripheral than having someone in the engine room for example,” Schmidt said. “It’s difficult to play if someone at the fulcrum of the team is not performing because other people can’t get access to the game.
“Johnny missing a kick still provides plenty of access. They get to drop out and we get to chase around, pick the ball up and go again. So I think when you look at Johnny’s game, his tackle on (Wales No.8 Ross) Moriarty for example. I don’t know how that’s a four out of 10 (performance).
“I think they’ve got that line-out ball back and he hits him so hard we get a five-metre scrum, and then on the back of that five-metre scrum he picks and goes, and wins about three metres in the lead-up to Cian (Healy) scoring a try.
“I think he’s chipping in and I think, therefore, the team on the back of that they get access. If he misses a kick the ball is mostly dead, unless it comes off the post and then it was a Welsh error that allows us to get that ball back and in the end construct a really good try.
“How did we get that try? I don’t think you’d see a better pass in world rugby (than Sexton’s to try scorer Jacob Stockdale). It was incredibly flat, it went across two channels and I think Leigh Halfpenny didn’t think he (Sexton) could throw it, because he could actually mark up one out, but Bundee Aki is there, he wedges in on him and it goes straight across to Jacob who’s untouched going over.
“When you add those contributions together they certainly outweigh some goal-kicks, and as I said it’s not a circumstance that we would predict happening in two days’ time. You never say never. It may be me who is proved wrong, because it happens. Anyone can be proved wrong because we’re talking about the human factor, aren’t we?
Aside from backing his on-field general, Schmidt also reacted firmly against the suggestion made by Wales counterpart Warren Gatland that his side deliberately kept ball in play time to a minimum in order to negate the opposition.
Gatland said the ball had been in play for 32 minutes in Dublin as opposed to 47 minutes in Wales’s previous outing, England’s 12-6 win at Twickenham. It was a theme revisited this week by Scotland assistant coach Mike Blair who said his team would be seeking better policing of Irish game management through match referee Wayne Barnes.
The Ireland head coach was ready for the question and had the perfect retort for Gatland.
“It’s funny you mention that,” Schmidt said, “because the highest game minutes at the minute was a game where there was very few passes made (England v Wales), where I think there was about 30 more kicks than any other game.
“I think it’s one of those things that might fit snugly in summarising a game but it’s probably a truism that you can make stats say anything you like.
“There is a huge correlation between penalty kicks at goal, penalty kicks awarded and tries scored and game minutes. That negative correlation: the more tries that are scored, the more conversions have to be taken.
“You imagine, eight tries in a game... you can take probably eight-to-10 minutes out of game by the time it’s all muddled around a little bit. Then it becomes a 70-minute game. If they stop us scoring tries then they will get more game minutes,” he added.
Schmidt has had to deal with criticism of Ireland’s attacking style throughout this championship, from Gatland’s sarcastic praise of the Irish being “so exciting the way they played today” in beating his side to a newspaper columnist and former player portraying a nightmarish vision of Ireland playing “Warrenball”.
When a reporter asked him at yesterday’s team announcement whether his side would be repeating their gameplan of direct, one-out runners against the Scots, Schmidt replied: “It’s ironic you say that, because I’d probably challenge people to do a little bit more homework.
“I think there was some really good tight play and some stuff that went through the middle, but there was some stuff down the edges as well… We’ve got to keep that variety to our game.”
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