Billy Stickland/INPHO

Schmidt hopes to see Cronin grab opportunity after show of 'faith'

The explosive Leinster hooker will make just a 10th start for Ireland, his first in the Six Nations.

“IT’S NOT LIKE he doesn’t know we’ve got faith in him,” said Joe Schmidt after handing Sean Cronin a first ever start in the Six Nations.

The hooker has had to be incredibly patient at international level, ordinarily finding himself behind captain Rory Best and among the replacements when Ireland play Tier 1 opposition.

Sunday’s Six Nations clash with Italy will be Cronin’s 68th Test appearance, but 58 of them have come with the number 16 on his back after bouncing into action off the bench.

“I’m sure he’s excited,” Schmidt said of the 32-year-old hooker at Carton House today.

“He’s trained well. Hopefully that gives him the confidence to step out and do a really good job.

“He’ll have the confidence from the 10 starts he has had in different fixtures, but the amount of times he’s come off the bench and been involved in really important wins for us, I think, why not bring that from the start.

It’s a great opportunity for Sean and I’m hopeful he’ll grab it with both hands.”

After mentioning the roles Cronin has played off the bench in big Tests, the head coach pointed to last summer’s series in Australia when Cronin was named to start the decisive third Test in Sydney, only to be sidelined after sitting out the captain’s run with a hamstring issue.

Sunday in Rome represents a major chance for Cronin, a nominee for European Player of the Year, to lay down a marker in his bid to oust Best and become first-choice hooker before the World Cup. When that is put to Schmidt though, he also stressed the opportunity in front of Niall Scannell.

“I’m sure that’s his intention. As much he’s very team-oriented, Sean, he will personally want to put his best foot forward.

Sean Cronin Cronin packs down for a scrummaging session before the team flew out to Italy. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Niall Scannell will be very keen to do the same thing because two years ago (against Italy) he was picked on the bench, Rory got ill the day before the game and that was really his big step onto the stage.

“He played superbly in that game. He’s been in and out since because of various injuries, but both those hookers are really interesting for us to have a look at.”

A quartet of injuries this week have given Schmidt more interesting areas to keep a close eye on than he expected. Jordi Murphy slots in at number eight due to an abdominal injury for Jack Conan and Jack Carty is among the replacements while Joey Carbery nurses a hamstring issue.

Jordan Larmour (finger) and Robbie Henshaw (leg) are also missing. However, Schmidt stressed that all bar Larmour could have played this weekend at a push, but he decided to hold them back an extra fortnight before France visit Dublin.

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