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McGrath drops out, Kearney remains as Schmidt's fullback and more talking points

The Ireland head coach has named his first team of the season.

JOE SCHMIDT HAS this afternoon revealed his hand for the first Test of the season, naming his team to face South Africa at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

You can view the match day 23 here, and below we take a closer look at the head coach’s selection. 

Bundee’s much-anticipated debut

Bundee Aki Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This November series opener has long been earmarked as Bundee Aki’s potential Ireland debut, and so it has come to pass with the Connacht centre to renew his midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw on Saturday.

Much of the talk in the build-up has been over the inclusion of the Kiwi native in Schmidt’s panel and he gets his chance in a green jersey at the first available opportunity when the Springboks pitch up at the Aviva.

Injuries to Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne reduced Schmidt’s options and ultimately paved the way for Aki to come straight into the starting XV, but there is no doubt his performances over the last three years have merited a call-up.

Regardless of whether you agree with the three-year residency rule and the issue of integrity, the addition of a player of Aki’s calibre can only be a good thing for Ireland and help build the squad depth Schmidt is striving for in this pre-World Cup period.

The prospect of the 27-year-old lining up alongside Henshaw again is an exciting one and certainly Aki has made a hugely positive impact since coming into camp at Carton House 10 days ago.

Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey had been in the running to partner Henshaw and can feel somewhat unfortunate to miss out on a place in the match day squad, but, as it has been all week, it’s all eyes on Ireland’s new number 12.

Injury denies Earls

You’ve got to feel for Keith Earls, with a hamstring injury sustained in training denying the Munster winger the chance to continue his impressive form in a green jersey.

The 30-year-old was due to start on the wing and the timing of this setback is a cruel blow for a player who had been in the form of his life over recent months. His absence represents a significant loss for Ireland.

On the flip side, the door opens for Andrew Conway who is promoted from the bench while his Munster team-mate Darren Sweetnam could make his debut after being named among the replacements.

‘Form’ a factor as McGrath drops out

Joe Schmidt with Cian Healy Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

While it had been neck-and-neck between Jack McGrath and Cian Healy for the number one jersey, nobody expected the former to miss out completely as Dave Kilcoyne is rewarded for his strong start to the season with a place on the bench.

After starting all three of Ireland’s summer Tests, Healy will again pack it down alongside captain Rory Best and the evergreen Tadhg Furlong in the front row against the ‘Boks, with McGrath dropping out completely.

The Leinster and Lions prop didn’t train fully last week due to a hip knock and that, in addition to ‘form’ being a factor, saw Schmidt opt for Healy to make his fourth consecutive start in a green shirt.

Healy’s performances during the early stages of the campaign have certainly suggested he’s returning to something close to his best form while the excellence of Kilcoyne means McGrath is limited to nothing more than a watching brief this weekend.

“We were looking for form players, we wanted to reward players who were playing well for their provinces and we also wanted experience. I think we have both,” Schmidt said.

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Kearney returns

Rob Kearney Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Although at one point it looked like Rob Kearney’s troublesome hamstring would rule him out of the series, the 31-year-old is preferred to Joey Carbery and is named to start at fullback on Saturday evening.

Kearney has played just 187 minutes of competitive rugby this season but his inclusion is a huge show of faith in the 31-year-old, with the absence of Simon Zebo opening the door for the Leinster man.

In explaining his decision, Schmidt said that Ireland would not have won without Kearney in Chicago 12 months ago and thus has opted for the more experienced option when deciding between him and Carbery.

“Those are the attacking threats in the air and on the ground, it’s that experience,” the head coach said.

“For those guys in the back-three I think Rob’s going to be really important, helping to navigate those guys around the pitch.”

Despite a couple of injury-plagued seasons, during which he battled hamstring, back and knee problems, Kearney, 31, remains Schmidt’s choice at fullback and will win his 77th this weekend.

For his part, Carbery is unfortunate not to start on the back of a fine start to the season at 15 for Leinster but will provide cover for a number of positions off the bench.

Stockdale’s big chance

Jacob Stockdale Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

What a year it has been for Jacob Stockdale.

After making his try-scoring debut against USA in June, the 21-year-old’s development has been rapid and his selection on the wing is an indication as to how highly he’s rated by Schmidt.

Five tries in seven appearances this season certainly speaks of a young winger with an eye for the line and the Ulster man will make his home debut under the lights at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Schmidt said: “He progressed through that [summer] tour really well, he’s such a positive young man, looking to improve himself all the time.

“And he’s got things to learn. He’s not the finished article, but you become that by having some tough moments in some tough games.”

No tougher game than the Springboks.

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Ryan Bailey

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