Beirne and O'Brien remain part of Schmidt's thinking amidst 'different brief'

The Ireland head coach says this Six Nations has partly been about ‘posing a few questions to players’.

IRELAND CAME INTO this Six Nations with what Joe Schmidt terms “a slightly different brief.”

Five changes for the Scotland game, four for the trip to Italy, now seven ahead of Sunday’s clash with France.

Injuries played a part in some of these calls, but Schmidt says there has been an element of planning too, with the World Cup in Japan later this year in mind.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has selected a strong team for tomorrow. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“We’ve been very much settled in our different selections in years gone by,” said the Ireland boss yesterday. “We wanted to pose a few questions to the players this year. Can they slot in? Can they change around?

“Inevitably, that is one of the equations we’re going to have to make a few calculations for later in the year. For us, it has been a really good challenge. We’ve actually lost a couple of guys we had planned to play as well.”

Dan Leavy not getting game time is among the frustrations in that regard, but the likes of Quinn Roux, Dave Kilcoyne, Ultan Dillane, Chris Farrell and Jack Conan – who would have also started against Italy but for injury – have had opportunities to put their World Cup cases forward.

Interestingly enough, though, Ireland have ended up with the same pack this weekend as started against France in the first game of last year’s Grand Slam run.

Indeed, Schmidt – for all the talk of a different brief – has named an extremely strong starting team for tomorrow’s clash, keen to ensure Ireland finish this Six Nations strongly against the French and Wales six days later – a shortened turnaround that will handily give them practice for the same gap between the games against Scotland and Japan at the World Cup.

Rory Best, Cian Healy, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander and Garry Ringrose all return to Ireland’s XV, leaving Schmidt with 13 of the team that beat the All Blacks back in November, Devin Toner and Kieran Marmion the missing two.

It’s an impressive Irish selection but, as ever, there was some room for eyebrows to be raised on the outside, particularly around the non-involvement of Tadhg Beirne, who Schmidt said had some “soreness” this week but could have been selected to play. 

“We have had a bit of time with him in November,” said Schmidt of the four-times-capped second row. “Obviously, he did get a start with us in Chicago [against Italy], did really well for us, and chipped in with a couple of really good performances.

Conor Murray, Tadhg Beirne and Rory Best Beirne didn't train with Ireland on Friday. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“That gives us a bit of confidence around Tadhg and he was unlucky in picking up that medial ligament injury [before the Six Nations]. As much as it wasn’t a show-stopper, it just put him behind the eight-ball a little because there are guys who have been in camp longer with us the whole time who are probably a little bit more up to speed.

“He has done enough. He didn’t train today [Friday] but he trained Wednesday and Tuesday so despite not training today we got a bit of a look at him this week. That gives us a bit of confidence as well.”

The other name notable by its absence is Sean O’Brien, the Leinster openside dropped from the matchday squad after starting the last two games of the Six Nations against Scotland and Italy.

“I think everyone worries about their place in any squad at any time,” said Schmidt when asked if O’Brien should be concerned about selection for the World Cup. “The problem for Sean is that he hasn’t really had too much rugby and he wasn’t happy with his performance against Italy.

“He came on against England and I thought he made a really positive impression, and I thought he did well against Scotland as well.

“So it’s not like he’s not in our thinking. None of the players we’ve utilised so far are not in our thinking, but unfortunately later in the year, you have got to trim that group to a very small group of 31 [for the World Cup].

“But at the same time, any of those 31 can pick up an injury in the last couple of games and we need to have, we believe, 40 to 50 players who are going to be on the same page and at least partially prepared to step in and fill in.”

Content with his team selection, Schmidt is hoping again for a “more cohesive” performance from Ireland against what he expects to be a strong French challenge.

Conor Murray Conor Murray at Ireland training yesterday. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Antoine Dupont, les Bleus’ 22-year-old scrum-half, is “a really good player,” 19-year-old out-half Romain Ntamack is a “multi-faceted” threat, while the midfield of Gaël Fickou and Mathieu Bastareaud will test Ireland’s defence and their pack has plenty of boeuf

After the sheer disappointment of Ireland’s last home game against England, Schmidt is hopeful that tomorrow – his final home Six Nations fixture as Ireland boss – will be a much more enjoyable occasion for those in green.

“I’ve had four appeals over the last couple of days from people looking for tickets and I think the enthusiasm of our support has not changed and we’re incredibly appreciative of that,” said Schmidt.

“We know in those last 10 minutes against England, it’s hard to be really behind the team when the team’s out of the game.

“We’ve got to get into this game, stay in this game and then we keep the crowd with us. It’s a responsibility we’re conscious of and one I hope we deliver on.”

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