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Dublin: 16°C Tuesday 22 September 2020

Impossible to replace 'world class players' but Schmidt excited to test Ireland's depth

Opportunity knocks for Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Chris Farrell against Wales on Saturday.

Schmidt has made five changes for Wales.
Schmidt has made five changes for Wales.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ryan Bailey reports from Carton House

WHILE CONCEDING THE loss of three Lions for such a pivotal game is from far ideal, Joe Schmidt says Saturday’s clash with Wales is an ideal opportunity for him to thoroughly test the depth of his squad.

The Ireland head coach has made five changes to his starting XV for the visit of Warren Gatland’s side to Dublin [KO 2.15pm, TV3], four of which come in the pack and three are enforced through injury.

Although there were positives noises from inside the camp over the last 10 days over the progress made by Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson, both players have lost their race to be fit for Wales, while a third Lion in Robbie Henshaw is also sidelined with the dislocated shoulder he sustained against Italy a fortnight ago.

The loss of three key players is a setback in any context, but when you factor in the return of Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams for the visitors, it only adds to the concerns over how Ireland will manage without Furlong, Henderson and Henshaw.

Speaking at his team announcement press conference this afternoon, Schmidt said Ulster second row Henderson ‘could probably have played’ but it wasn’t worth risking him ahead of the final two games against Scotland and England.

“Iain was very close, he could definitely play next weekend, and the week after he will be fine,” Schmidt explained.

“Tadhg was close as well. We thought on Tuesday with Tadhg he may well make it, but the progress just stalled a little bit so we said let’s not chase this, let’s focus on the opportunity for other people and get you right for Scotland in a couple of weeks’ time.”

Andrew Porter has been tasked with filling Furlong’s sizeable shoes at tighthead while James Ryan is fit again to deputise for Henderson in the second row alongside Leinster team-mate Devin Toner.

Schmidt admits it’s impossible to replace the calibre of player he is losing from his side, but there is huge excitement over what Porter and Ryan can bring while Munster’s Chris Farrell comes in for his first Six Nations start to partner Bundee Aki in midfield.

Andrew Porter Porter is set for a big afternoon on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In the other changes to Schmidt’s XV, Cian Healy gets the nod ahead of Jack McGrath while CJ Stander returns to start at number eight with Jack Conan dropping back to the bench.

“They are world class players, you don’t suddenly replace world class players, but we’re a lot more focused on who we do have,” the head coach continued.

“Who we do have is Andrew Porter who is a really promising young player that we’re excited about, and James Ryan likewise.

“We’re short on experience and we’re up against a team welcoming back three Lions while we see three disappear. So yes that’s not ideal, but at the same time, if you want to learn, what better environment than a really white-hot atmosphere in the Aviva on Saturday.”

The selection of Porter, ahead of Munster’s John Ryan, is further evidence of Schmidt’s forward-planning ahead of the 2019 World Cup but also testament to the impressive form the former St Andrew’s College prop has been in.

Having switched sides in the scrum less than two years ago, the 22-year-old’s progress has been rapid and after making his senior debut in America last summer, Porter will win his fifth cap on Saturday on what will be the occasion of his first Six Nations start.

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“After just over three minutes last weekend [against Italy], Andrew had to come on to replace Tadgh and did a sterling job, for 76 and a half minutes.

“So he acquitted himself really well, I know it’s not the same level; Rob Evans is a tricky customer, the angles and stepping around, all those will be really good learning experiences for Andrew Porter.

“And they’ve got to learn somewhere and this is a really good opportunity for him.

“We are ready to test the strength of our squad, we’re always ready to test the strength of our squad, and we would like to think that is as seamless as possible.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt speaking at today's press conference. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“The forward pack still have just as much enthusiasm for what they need to roll their sleeves up and get ready for on Saturday.”

Schmidt added that there is an element of going into the unknown this weekend, but there are no question marks over the ability of Porter, Ryan and Farrell to step up.

“You’re always questioning yourself, because you know your opponent is a very good player, you know there are circumstances you don’t control in the game, and there are going to be scenarios that come up that you’d like to think you’d be prepared for but you don’t know how you’re going to cope.

“So for a player who hasn’t been there before, yep, it’s a bit more pressure.

“The unknown is always a fear for pretty much any human being, and there is a little bit about the unknown going into this weekend.”

Healy partners captain Rory Best and Porter in the front row for his 76th cap and says the injuries to Furlong and Henderson will cause no disruption to the pack.

“If you look at Ports firstly, over the last year and a half what he’s had to take in his stride, changing sides of the scrum, how he’s developed that part of his game, it’s more exciting than nervous to see what he’s going to provide,” the prop said.

“He’s a very talented player, strong lad, and he’s pretty comfortable to scrummage with, you don’t feel like there’s any deficit.

“And then there’s the freak show that is James Ryan, he just keeps producing so that’s exciting as well, and to have his energy behind you in the scrum as well is just brilliant.

“He’ll be behind Ports, so that’s going to be a strong side.”

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Ryan Bailey

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