Joe Schmidt is backing centres Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls to forge a winning combination against a mighty French midfield in Cardiff.
Ireland’s head coach has retained the pair for the second week in succession as his side bids to beat France at the Millennium Stadium and win World Cup Pool D heading into next weekend’s quarter-finals.
That means no place for Jared Payne, whose recovery from a bruised foot suffered two weeks ago was not enough to unseat the in-form Earls from the outside centre berth.
Earls successfully teamed with Henshaw for the first time against Italy last Sunday with the pair combining brilliantly at the line for the former to score the only try of the game and become Ireland’s highest try scorer in World Cups.
It is a massive vote of confidence in the Munster man, particularly given his opposite number will be Mathieu Bastareaud, the Toulon cannonball. Schmidt, who is expecting a “combative game” against the French, backed the far smaller Earls’s own physicality to stand up to the test.
“He’s quite physically strong. I know he got held up at one stage in the game in the Millennium, and I know we’re going back a wee way, but he busted his way through a couple of tackles and it was only Hibbard who held on long enough and lay there long enough to stop him reaching out and getting the ball down.
“There’s been a number of other times in tackles he’s done really well. He got his head down a little bit early in the George North tackle and gave himself a knock. We’ve been working hard on that in training. While he gave himself a knock, he also put George North on the ground very, very quickly.
“Keith is fit and strong at the moment. He’s confident and he’s playing well. Again, his finish last week was spot-on.”
Earls’s fledgeling partnership with Henshaw excites the Ireland coach.
“To be fair to Robbie, he hadn’t played for a long time and I was really happy with what he did. And I felt that Keith linked in with him really well. For the try, Robbie stepped inside and stayed strong in the tackle. He went forward, he got the offload to Keith, he was in total control of the offload.
“For a couple of guys who hadn’t really played together before, they trained together well as well, we just sort of felt that they were a good combination. A good mix of skills as well. Robbie’s size and strength as opposed to Keith’s footwork and acceleration.”
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