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Big opportunity for Conan as Schmidt resists temptation to make change at 9

Conor Murray will be at scrum-half against the Wallabies tomorrow.

Murray Kinsella reports from Sydney

JOE SCHMIDT IS understandably pleased to have given Joey Carbery a start at out-half on this tour of Australia, but he has resisted any temptation to give Conor Murray a weekend off at scrum-half.

The Munster man understandably retains his place in the starting team for tomorrow’s final Test against the Wallabies in Sydney, meaning he will have worn the nine shirt for all three fixtures.

Conor Murray Murray starts at scrum-half again. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Murray is one of the best in the world and his importance to Ireland is obvious but there had been some hope that this tour might present a chance for Kieran Marmion or John Cooney – the two other scrum-halves in this squad – to start a game.

Marmion has 22 caps for Ireland but just five of those have come in the starting team, with only the 2017 Six Nations clash with England having been against a Tier 1 nation.

Cooney came off the bench in last weekend’s win over the Wallabies for his second Ireland cap but played just two minutes. His first Test cap involved eight minutes off the bench against Japan last summer.

Leinster’s Luke McGrath, who didn’t make the touring squad, has six caps but only a single start against Japan.

While Marmion has been through some big Tests with Ireland – sometimes out of position – and earned a good degree of trust from Schmidt, the relative lack of experience behind Murray is one potential cause for concern with the 2019 World Cup in view.

But with a series on the line tomorrow at Allianz Stadium, Schmidt has gone for Murray at number nine again.

“There was a temptation and I think if we’d been 2-0 up or 2-0 down in the series, we may have done that,” said Schmidt of the possibility of Marmion or Cooney having started.

“But we wanted to keep a pretty consistent spine and also part of what you want is to give Jack Conan an opportunity. It’s good for him to have experience either side and guiding him off the back of the scrum as well.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt has opted for a degree of continuity in the spine of the team. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So there’s a lot of cogs that kind of need to fit together to make the wheel turn and we wanted to keep as many cogs in the well-oiled, rock-solid department and then slip a few in as well.”

Conan will certainly benefit from having the confidence of Murray at scrum-half, while he has an excellent pack in front of him too.

That unit includes two players set to win their 50th Ireland caps in loosehead prop Jack McGrath and captain Peter O’Mahony, who lines out at openside for just the second time in his Test career – the other occasion coming in the 2012 Six Nations against Scotland.

For 25-year-old Leinster number eight Conan, this is almost make-or-break territory.

The Old Belvedere club man has won eight caps for Ireland but his most recent appearance, off the bench against Wales during this year’s Grand Slam, didn’t go well as he made a defensive error.

While the fact that Conan is an out-and-out number eight might play in his favour, Ireland are also likely to have Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Jack O’Donoghue and others returning to the back row mix next season.

A dominant performance against one of the best teams in the world tomorrow, though, and Conan could well convince Schmidt that he cannot go to the 2019 World Cup without him.

Conan has spoken openly this season about what Schmidt has asked for from him in the way of defensive energy and concentration, and the Ireland coach is waiting to see if there has been an improvement.

“It’s really up to Jack,” said Schmidt. “He’s got an opportunity. He’s a really good athlete, Jack, I think he’s incredibly motivated. He can bring a physical edge, we’ve seen that this time last year in both Tests against Japan.

Jack Conan Conan gets a big chance at number eight. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So Jack is up against two of the best fetchers in world rugby [David Pocock and Michael Hooper], and the dynamic carrier that Hooper is as well.

“For Jack, as exciting as it is, it’s also a little bit threatening but the comfort of having Pete and CJ Stander there, the experience they have, the combination that they’ve developed over a period of time, both in Munster and in Ireland.

“I’m hopeful that will offer some good confidence and support to Jack as he looks to really stamp an impression on the game.”

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Murray Kinsella

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