AS IF THE challenge of halting England’s Grand Slam mission and ending their own 2017 Six Nations on a high wasn’t already great enough for Ireland, Joe Schmidt has now had to contend with losing highly-influential scrum-half Conor Murray.
The Munster man’s name was surprisingly missing from the team sheet at Carton House yesterday, after it had been expected that Murray would be fit to start.
Rob Kearney is absent through injury too, although the return of Jared Payne should be a boost in terms of attack, playmaking and defensive communication.
Kieran Marmion proved to be a sharp deputy for Murray last weekend in Cardiff but faces the greatest test of his career tomorrow [KO 5pm], as he makes just his second Test start. It comes against the second best team in the world, one sitting confidently on the crest of a wave.
England may only be four-point favourites for this meeting, but following Ireland’s defeats to Wales and Scotland in this championship, a win for Schmidt’s side would rank right up there as their finest.
“Any team can be beaten on their day,” said Schmidt yesterday. ”I think we have seen a bit of that lately. Who would have picked Barcelona to turn around that PSG result? Who would have picked Douvan to get beaten at 4/1 on?
“Who would have picked us to win in Chicago at 13/1 in a two-horse race? That’s what people love about sport.
“Can we? We have to believe we can. We have got to go out there with that absolute belief that we can and we know that at the same time, if we don’t get as much as possible right, we know that they will be too good.”
Making life more difficult for Schmidt was losing Murray and Kearney late this week, after both had been involved Tuesday’s training session.
Murray’s shoulder bruising didn’t stand up to contact testing, however, while Kearney suffered an unfortunate knee injury that could rule him out for some time.
It meant Marmion and Payne were pitched into the first team for yesterday’s 60-minute training session – not exactly ideal preparation time on the pitch at Carton House.
The third and final change to Schmidt’s starting XV is not an enforced one, with Schmidt dropping Devin Toner to the bench to make way for Iain Henderson, after the Leinster lock had started all 19 of Schmidt’s previous Six Nations games in charge of Ireland.
Henderson has started only four games in the second row for Ulster in the last three seasons, but Schmidt has rarely viewed him as anything other than a lock. Now, he steps up alongside Donnacha Ryan in Ireland’s second row.
“I had a really good chat with Dev,” said Schmidt in confirming that is was difficult to drop the 30-year-old. “He’s there on the bench and we’ve got some good lineout strength coming off the bench and if we need to go to that it’s there and available for us.
“I’ve coached Dev for seven years, I’ve seen him progress from a lot of times coming off the bench behind Leo Cullen and Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn [at Leinster] into a guy who’s been incredibly important for us and still is. He’s been involved in the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations wins, big games like winning in Chicago and South Africa, he’s been there.
“I do think it’s tough for Dev, but at the same time he’s racked up some massive miles and he’s just a little bit fatigued at the moment and Iain Henderson is fresh. Donnacha Ryan is fresher as well, he missed the first round.”
An already creaking lineout faces its toughest examination yet against the English, with Munster man Ryan tasked with calling the set-piece.
England are in a different position to Schmidt’s Ireland, with Eddie Jones able to welcome two fresh players into their starting XV by choice for the final fixture of the contest.
One wonders how good England would have been with a fully-fit Billy Vunipola in harness before now, but the Saracens number eight is back in Eddie Jones’ side for the clash with Ireland. Schmidt is understandably worried about Vunipola.
“One of the things that Billy, the threat he brings – probably more than Nathan Hughes – is his ability to make a 20m flat pass, his ability to read the game and deliver a change-up. For such a big, powerful man, he’s got a really quick acceleration and that makes him really dangerous.
“You only have to look back at last year’s game and the real problems he caused us running over the top of players and linking with other players. If he wasn’t man of the match he would have gone pretty close. For us, he’s a massive threat.”
The evasive and alarmingly quick Anthony Watson is also back in England’s side, with Jack Nowell unlucky to miss out, meaning Jones is bringing a matchday 23 that bristles with quality.
Jones is leading the English in search of that record-setting 19th consecutive victory and a second Grand Slam in a row, of course, underlining his huge level of success since taking over from Stuart Lancaster.
In stark contrast to Schmidt, the Australian is never shy of expressing his confidence or having a jab at the opposition – he cited Ireland’s kicking game again this week – but the Ireland coach is not one to bite back publicly.
“Probably in the depth and continuity they’ve got,” said Schmidt when asked why that approach from Jones works well for England. “I think everyone’s a little bit different. Personality-wise, Eddie and I are different. I think there are some common traits.
“Eddie works incredibly hard and I know that I do as much as I possibly can. I guess some people just go about their business and are inward-looking with their team, certainly outward-looking with their opponents but certainly not as outspoken about it.
“It’s pretty hard to fault Eddie because a lot of what he has said has been justified by the performances, that have backed up what he’s said. Sometime some of the stats come out, for example some of the kicking stats last year, they were thoroughly exaggerated but that’s part of the colour I think.
“The enjoyment, the twinkle in the eye that Eddie has when he says those things, I think he’s looking for a response and he gets a response from his players, that’s for sure, because they’ve done well for him.
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