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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 16 February, 2019

Schmidt considering changes as Ireland look to build on solid foundation

Mike Ross and Cian Healy may come into the selection mix for the France clash.

GIVEN THE GENERAL pessimism coming into the fixture, the late loss of two experienced players in Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney on top of those already gone and the quality of Wales, a draw doesn’t look like a bad result for Ireland.

CJ Stander suported by Jamie Heaslip CJ Stander carries for Ireland in Dublin yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Certainly there were imperfections in this display from Joe Schmidt’s side, but the opening 30 minutes and the final push to earn a share of the spoils were highly encouraging ahead of this weekend’s visit to France.

CJ Stander was excellent yesterday, Johnny Sexton provided moments of class, Conor Murray was assured, Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw combined well again and there were mountains of work rate across the forward pack.

Given the huge physical toll of a game against an extremely robust Wales team, and a fixture in which the ball-in-play time appeared to be very high, it does seem certain that Ireland will make changes for the trip to Paris.

A six-day turnaround had meant that was likely anyway, even without factoring in that O’Brien and Kearney will be fit again. Keith Earls is “doubtful” after sustaining a possible concussion, but Schmidt stated yesterday that Cian Healy and Mike Ross may come into the selection mix after their recoveries from injury.

First things first, Schmidt’s review will highlight the areas where improvements can be made, though the quality of Ireland’s defensive performance is likely to provide satisfaction, particularly given how Ireland were cut apart by Argentina in their most recent outing before facing the Welsh.

“I think the Argentinians are a bit more efficient at getting to the edges, so I’m not sure that we’ve moved on too much but it’s certainly something that we’re working at,” said Schmidt of Ireland’s defensive display.

“With such a mix of players coming in, we’d be pretty happy with what we did achieve but we know we’ve got to be better for next week. I think there might have been a few couple of small steps forward but we need to take a big stride for next weekend.”

Johnny Sexton injured Schmidt feels Sexton is 95% sure to play in France. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Schmidt was pleased with his side’s discipline as they avoided a repeat of the frustration suffered in Cardiff in the 2015 Six Nations, when Wayne Barnes repeatedly pinged them for failing to roll away post-tackle.

Those elements provide a solid foundation for Ireland to move forward with, though the scrum and lineout will be of concern to Schmidt.

There will be temptation to make changes in the front and second rows, particularly given that with Ross and Healy “could potentially be playing next week,” with Schmidt saying “we just need to make a decision as to whether that’s for us or for Leinster.”

Ross will be a particularly tempting proposition for Schmidt at tighthead after Wales’ Rob Evans made some headway on that side of the Irish scrum yesterday.

Donnacha Ryan may push Mike McCarthy for the starting lock berth alongside Devin Toner, while O’Brien is certain to return on the openside if he is, as expected, fit. In the backline, Earls’ head injury may mean a shift to the wing for Simon Zebo, with Rob Kearney returning at fullback.

Schmidt is at “95%” sure that Johnny Sexton will be fit to start despite appearing to suffer some sort of chest or shoulder injury late in the game.

“There will probably be one or two changes, maybe even three or four mainly because it’s a bit of a tough battle,” said Schmidt. “I don’t know what the ball-in-play time was but it seemed to me that there was some very long phases of play and a lot of those phases, they spent about 20% of their possession in our 22 so that’s just a little bit more attritional.

Andrew Trimble tackled by Tom James Andrew Trimble bursts forward for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“That’s huge credit to our players, they rolled their sleeves up and defended but at the same time it takes a toll and after games like that you need 72 hours to fully recuperate fully.

“So for us, we’ll train Tuesday without contact and then on Thursday we’ll train and probably do a little bit of light contact and then we fly out that afternoon to Paris.”

Schmidt certainly isn’t taking the challenge of facing France in Paris lightly, despite the signs of a lack of defensive structure and set-piece cohesion from Guy Novès’ men in their 23-21 win over Italy on Saturday.

The Ireland head coach characteristically name checked the majority of their players, detailing each man’s strengths, in pointing out that les Bleus will provide another attritional test on Saturday at Stade de France.

The likes of Jonathan Danty, Yacouba Camara, Wenceslas Lauret, Hugo Bonneval and Jules Plisson provide new tests for Ireland, alongside the power of more established figures in the French squad.

I think like anything, going into the unknown is a little bit daunting and seeing some of the athletes they have in the new guys in there [is worrying]…

“So across the board, and one of the things for next week is going to be discipline. I don’t know if you saw Jules Plisson with that kick at the end, it was a phenomenal 54-metre kick to effectively win the game.

“So we can’t afford to invite them into the game by giving out anything that they haven’t really had to work hard for.”

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Murray Kinsella

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