Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
JOE SCHMIDT SAYS MAINTAINING freshness was the main reason behind his decision to make four changes for Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Italy at the Aviva Stadium.
The Ireland head coach has retained the same backline from last weekend’s last-gasp win in Paris, but has shuffled his pack with Jack McGrath and Devin Toner returning to the tight five and Dan Leavy and Jack Conan starting in the back row alongside Peter O’Mahony.
McGrath replaces Leinster team-mate Cian Healy at loosehead, while Toner returns to the second-row in place of James Ryan, who misses out completely having struggled with a minor calf problem this week.
CJ Stander’s heavy workload at the Stade de France and Josh van der Flier’s season-ending knee injury means the door opens for Leavy and Conan, the former set to make his first start in the Six Nations and the latter in line for this championship debut.
“Some of it is mileage,” Schmidt said, when asked about his team selection.
“CJ Stander had 42 cleanouts and 23 carries in the game in Paris, while not attritional for CJ, he’s in great shape, it is really probably rewarding some performances by Jack Conan in recent times and it is also that opportunity to keep that freshness.
“These Six Nations games do become mentally attritional. By the time we got back from Paris on Sunday evening, you had some fairly sore tired bodies.”
On the inclusion of Conan, who will win his sixth cap, Schmidt referred to his standout performances in green during the summer tour of USA/Japan.
“What’s visible with Jack is his ability to accelerate and carry the ball but I think on the other side of the ball he’s been really impressive, bring a really physical side to his defence,” the Ireland head coach continued.
“Obviously his ability to transfer the ball through the contact and before the contact is another impressive thing. His lineout work has been continually improving as well. It’s a whole ambit of things that he can bring to the party.
Source: Dan Sheridan
“For those who remember the tour during the summer Jack was a really impressive performer for us. He did well in the autumn internationals in the window he got.”
Overall, Schmidt is happy with the balance of his back row with the experience and leadership of O’Mahony set to be important, while Stander will provide the cover from the bench.
“With Peter O’Mahony and his leadership experience there, I think with the two younger lads they will bring their enthusiasm, athleticism and real hunger. We hope that it is pretty well balanced.
“We have seen some impressive performances from some of their back row (Sebastian) Negri was really impressive last week as a newcomer and that is balanced up by the legend that is Sergio Parisse.”
Schmidt has also elected to rotate his replacements following that hugely physically and demanding Test match in Paris, with Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion and Jordan Larmour, who is in line for a full debut, all named on the bench.
Connacht’s Ultan Dillane was unavailable for selection following a family bereavement, so his provincial team-mate Roux provides the second row cover.
Otherwise, Schmidt has retained the same backline for the second week in a row with Johnny Sexton starting at out-half, leaving Joey Carbery to wait in the wings again for his first taste of Six Nations action.
“It’s about combinations,” Schmidt said when asked if he considered going with Carbery in the pivot position.
“One of the great thing about Six Nations at the moment, and I hope in the future is that it is played over seven weeks.
“If Johnny didn’t start this week, and didn’t play next weekend [rest weekend], then he’d have two weekends where he hadn’t played, which isn’t the best preparation for the next game.
“He [Carbery] may well come off the bench this week and potentially could play next weekend with Leinster all things being equal, and he will still get that exposure, potentially at 10. It would be fantastic for Joey because he had that period out. We want to manage his return back.”
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