Ryan Bailey reports from Carton House
JOE SCHMIDT SAYS one of the reasons to throw James Ryan in for his first Six Nations start, and just his fifth international cap, against France in Paris this weekend is to test if the 21-year-old is ready to make the number five jersey his own.
The Ireland head coach has placed a huge amount of faith in the young second row by leaving the experienced Devin Toner on the bench for Saturday’s championship opener at the Stade de France [KO 4.45pm, TV3].
While Schmidt has largely opted for experience in every other department, Ryan’s inclusion alongside Iain Henderson is a selection with more than one eye on Japan 2019, as the former St Michael’s man’s progress continues to be fast-tracked.
Having made his Test debut last summer before making a senior appearance for Leinster, Ryan has started just five times for the province this term but made a big impression on Schmidt during the recent Champions Cup victory over Montpellier.
When asked if he’s confident Ryan can bridge the gap which exists between the two levels against Les Blues, Schmidt said: “One of the reasons is to find out. We want to be able to keep building in that position.
“It’s a position we don’t have huge depth in, we’ve got young guys pushing through and we’ve given James an opportunity. We felt he went really well against Montpellier recently, against what is a very big side.
“We’re really looking forward to seeing what he delivers on Saturday.”
Otherwise, Schmidt’s XV for Paris is as expected with Cian Healy again preferred ahead of Leinster team-mate Jack McGrath and Josh van der Flier partnering the Munster duo of Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the back-row.
In the backline, Schmidt has been able to name the seven he was expected to favour for the opening November Test against South Africa with Keith Earls back on the wing and the one-time Connacht midfield partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki unleashed on the international stage for a second time.
There is also a first Six Nations start for Jacob Stockdale after the young Ulster winger impressed in the November wins over South Africa and Argentina.
“It’s huge, huge [for those guys],” Schmidt continued.
“And they’re really excited about getting that opportunity. I don’t think there’s a better place to be than in between [Johnny] Sexton and Henshaw if you’re making a Six Nations debut.”
Of the eight replacements, seven are Leinster players with John Ryan the exception in a selection which underlines the eastern province’s form and dominance over the first half of the season.
Sean Cronin, completely omitted last Autumn, is back on the bench as cover for captain Rory Best while Fergus McFadden’s resurgence is rewarded with the number 23 jersey ahead of Jordan Larmour.
Schmidt says the 20-year-old was very close to being involved this weekend but stressed the timing of Larmour’s inclusion at international level for the first time is important to get right.
“I had a good chat with Jordan, he was very close to making the replacements bench. It’s a competitive area for us and we’ve gone for a mix of youth and experience. That’s probably a pretty good balance for us.”
Asked if naming Larmour on the bench on the opening weekend would have been too much of a baptism of fire for the former St Andrew’s College student, Schmidt added: “Not necessarily, we’ve just gone for the balance we’ve gone with. Rob Kearney was really good for us in November so we’ve progressed that and Jordan has really put his hand up and impressed everybody who has watched him play.
“He’s looking to try and bang the door down and he’s learning quite a bit in the environment. He’s training a bit on the wing as well as fullback so when you’re flicking between positions like that, he’s been uncomfortable at times and getting more comfortable.
“It’s just about timing it right and maybe that’ll be next weekend [against Italy].
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