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Henshaw's positional switch, Murray returns and more talking points

Joe Schmidt has named his first team of the 2019 Six Nations.

JOE SCHMIDT HAS this afternoon named his first team of the 2019 Six Nations, as Ireland’s Grand Slam defence gets underway in a massive opening-weekend game against England.

The head coach’s selection for the Aviva Stadium showdown is here, while below we take a look at the big talking points from today’s team announcement.

Henshaw’s positional switch

Robbie Henshaw Henshaw in training at the Aviva today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

By the time Schmidt officially named his starting XV at this afternoon’s press conference at the Aviva Stadium, it came as no surprise to hear the Kiwi read Robbie Henshaw’s name out at fullback. 

But the decision to start Henshaw in the 15 jersey for the first time at this level since his Ireland debut against USA back in 2013 is a big, if not calculated, risk from Schmidt.

With Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Henshaw all now fit and available for the first time in over a year, Schmidt has decided to select all three rather than choose between them for the visit of Eddie Jones’ side.

Henshaw, having started his career at fullback with Connacht, has not started in the position since his move to Leinster, although he played 34 minutes against Benetton in the Pro14 back in October when Rob Kearney got injured.

While the 25-year-old has previously spoken about it being his preferred position, it is still a big ask of Henshaw to deputise in the backfield on Saturday evening.

Significantly, it also means Schmidt has been able to retain the Ringrose-Aki midfield partnership. 

Speaking last year, Henshaw said: “I think he [Schmidt] knows that I have played plenty of rugby there. It’s where he can get the best out of me is where he will play me. That’s the centre and that’s where I enjoy at the moment.

I think the last time I played there [at 15] was two or three years ago against Munster at the Aviva. I went back to 15 just for like 10 minutes. It was nice, it was a bit different.

“Open land with plenty of space. It’s always nice to have that. I suppose it took me back to the early days of my career. It was enjoyable.”

It’s unclear whether this is part of a longer-term plan for Henshaw, or whether Kearney’s lack of game time during a stop-start season forced Schmidt’s hand. 

The 32-year-old has only played three games since the All Blacks win and his comeback in Leinster’s defeat of Scarlets last week saw him miss three tackle in a rusty display.

JVDF gets the nod

Josh van der Flier Van der Flier retains his place at seven. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Allowing for the already confirmed injuries to Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne, which somewhat simplified Schmidt’s second row selection, the other key call for the Kiwi this week was in the back row.

Although Seán O’Brien was back in the mix after his 55 minute-display against Wasps a couple of weekends ago, Schmidt has retained Josh van der Flier at openside, while Jordi Murphy was also in contention following an impressive run of form for Ulster. 

Schmidt has made just two alterations from that All Blacks win — Henshaw and Conor Murray in for Kearney and Kieran Marmion respectively — and it speaks volumes of van der Flier’s performance that day that he has again been handed the seven jersey. 

The Leinster flanker’s Six Nations was cruelly cut short in Paris last year but his diligence and application in getting back for Leinster was rewarded with a return against the All Blacks, where he excelled in the back row alongside CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony.

There is also a welcome return for Murray as he’s reunited with Johnny Sexton in the half-backs, with the Munster scrum-half set for his first Ireland appearance since last summer’s tour of Australia. He missed the November series with a neck injury. 

Granted Marmion did an excellent job in deputising for Murray in the nine jersey, but the Limerick native’s presence in the Ireland team is a major fillip ahead of the Grand Slam defence.  

Bench calls

Ireland team huddle during training The Ireland team huddle. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It could be argued the make-up of Ireland’s bench will have caused more debate within Carton House this week than the starting XV. The big calls see Dave Kilcoyne preferred to Jack McGrath, O’Brien held in reserve ahead of Murphy and Jordan Larmour getting the nod for the 23 jersey, where Will Addison and Andrew Conway were also candidates. 

Having come back from hip surgery post-Christmas, McGrath’s omission is another blow for the Leinster loosehead, particularly after he was left out of Leinster’s squad for their recent Heineken Champions Cup game against Toulouse. 

Kilcoyne’s form for Munster merits selection and is fully deserved, but this is a significant setback for the Lion. McGrath, like Kearney, weren’t in Portugal with Ireland last week and it turns out that was significant. 

O’Brien is also set to add firepower off the bench having recovered from the broken arm he suffered against Argentina in November, and the introduction of the Tullow Tank’s power and ball-carrying ability later in the piece is an exciting prospect for Ireland.

There is no place for Kearney on the bench, with his Leinster team-mate Larmour in line for his 10th international cap off the bench, while Connacht’s Quinn Roux is the second row cover ahead of Ultan Dillane.

John Cooney is the reserve scrum-half and is set to make his first Six Nations appearance, with Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter and Joey Carbery completing the matchday 23.  

Jones shows his hand 

Manu Tuilagi Tuilagi is back for England. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

England, as expected, have stacked their side with heavy artillery as they make their way from the Algarve to Dublin for this eagerly-anticipated Six Nations showdown. 

The headline news from Jones’ team selection is the return of Manu Tuilagi, who is set to make his first England start in more than four years after being named in midfield in the absence of the injured Ben Te’o.

The injury-plagued Leicester centre last started a match for England in the third Test against New Zealand in June 2014, while the other big call sees Elliot Daly hold off the challenge of Mike Brown to remain at fullback.

Daly, more comfortable as a centre or wing, has started England’s last seven Tests at fullback, but Brown is proficient under the high ball in the backfield, and it was expected he would be recalled in anticipation of an aerial bombardment from Ireland. 

But Jones did hand a recall to Jack Nowell. Having spoken about the possibility of converting the Exeter flyer into a flanker, the Australian coach selected him in his usual wing position.

In all, there are just seven players who started the last game of last year’s championship, as Henry Slade continues at outside centre where he partners Tuilagi in midfield, with Nowell and Jonny May the two wings.

Owen Farrell again captains the side from out-half, with the experienced Ben Youngs back at scrum-half. Replacement nine Dan Robson is poised to make his international debut off the bench.

“I just felt for this game the best option was to play Owen Farrell at 10 and Manu as a like-for-like replacement for Ben Te’o,” said Jones.

“Manu has impressed us at the training camp, and is right to play.”

England’s pack features both Vunipola brothers, with number eight Billy and prop Mako having recovered from their respective arm and calf injuries, to add real firepower to the visitors’ side. 

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Ryan Bailey

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