THE MOOD AROUND Ireland’s Maynooth training base was far from usual today as Joe Schmidt delivered three surprise changes to his starting line-up.
The Kiwi is hoping to stave off ending second straight Championship with just two matches won, not to mention preventing an English double Grand Slam and world record 19th straight win.
The late changes were issued minutes before Schmidt came down the Carton House corridor, the usual rumble of conversation in the crowded room was reduced to whispers and replaced by the swift tapping of fingers on hastily revised team news.
“Yeah, we did (make late changes), but that’s why you have a squad, and that’s why you try to invest in all squad members at all times,” Schmidt said.
“Because you want to keep bringing guys through, and you want to make sure that you’re trying to build that depth.
“You don’t suddenly get 60-odd caps’ worth of experience and suddenly be at the same level. That’s an unrealistic expectation. But what you do hope is that other guys who are coming in around players who have less experience, that they help with that fitting in, feeling comfortable and doing the best job that they can.”
Kieran Marmion has already proved capable of slotting in to perform a role for his team despite previously being used very sparingly by the head coach. The Connacht man will win just his second Test start this week due to a precautionary call on Conor Murray.
The Munster playmaker suffered a shoulder ‘stinger’ in the first-half of last weekend’s loss to Wales in Cardiff. Ireland’s medical team were quick to indicate a full recovery early this week, but after testing him in the rigours of a contact session, Schmidt opted out of risking the Limerick man.
“Conor, he trained okay on Tuesday without contact. We fitness-tested him today and just felt that he wasn’t going to be quite 100%.
“Not that he couldn’t function, just that once contact came back in and he got more bruising on top of bruising on that shoulder, we just felt that if we lost him early in the game, then you’re vulnerable.”
Schmidt admits that the loss of Murray, who has grown to a regular try-scoring threat for Ireland on top of his capacity for game management, is a severe blow.
“You lose his experience, 50-plus caps, you lose his calm. He’s incredibly calm on the pitch. He’s a good foil for other players who are under pressure, because he very seldom looks like he’s under pressure.
“You lose a defender who is incredibly good at organising other people and himself to make very good decisions, and then carry them through with positive action.
“His ability to control us and navigate us around the pitch, particularly with his kicking game, and the speed of his passing game.
“His experience will leave a hole for us, we’ve got a combined caps with Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath of about a dozen, as opposed to about 140 that they have in their half-backs.”
The only unforced change, according to Schmidt, is the rare sight of Devin Toner on the replacements bench. The head coach says he felt the need to start Iain Henderson. “Not that Dev played badly,” Schmidt insisted, despite the line-out wobbles in Cardiff and Edinburgh.
In the back-line, Jared Payne returns for a rare spin in Ireland’s number 15 jersey. A knee injury to Rob Kearney forced his withdrawal. However, Schmidt is hopeful that the issue won’t sideline the Louthman for an extended period as he trained in full on Tuesday before being ruled unfit.
“I think Jared’s experience will be really important for us on Saturday.
He obviously has played a little bit of fullback for us in South Africa where he immediately acquitted himself really well. I think he offers a fair bit of confidence to other players in front of him.
“And he’s a very solid player, in that it’s very seldom he makes an error, either a skill error or a decision error.
“Also his ability to read play, his ability to see space, to look after the ball or look after the end of the defence or anyone who gets through the defence, we’d have a lot of confidence in that.
“So he’s not quite the same player that Rob Kearney is, they are different players. And Jared has given us a lot of confidence in the past playing through the midfield, but again he has played for us at fullback and done really well.”
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