big issues

5 talking points from Joe Schmidt's first Ireland selection of the season

The Kiwi head coach has gone for an interesting midfield combination.

Ireland (v South Africa): Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (capt.); Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Dave Kilcoyne, Rodney Ah You, Mike McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Felix Jones.

Robbie Henshaw and Rodney Ah You Robbie Henshaw starts in Ireland's 12 shirt. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Will Henshaw and Payne work together?

OVER RECENT MONTHS, the discussion around Ireland’s midfield has been centred on one of Henshaw or Payne filling the 13 shirt, but Schmidt has opted to start both midfielders in this first Test of the season.

Henshaw is somewhat thrown into the deep end in being selected at inside centre, although there is little doubt the 21-year-old has the physical attributes to cope and thrive.

Schmidt likes his 12 to be a focal ball-carrier, a role Henshaw can deliver in. Despite his quiet form at 13 for Ulster, Payne gets the nod as Ireland’s outside centre on his international debut.

Both players are more than capable of stepping up to the required standard, but how will they function as a pairing? Will they swap positions intermittently? Is there a strong defensive trust between the pair?

Jean de Villiers and Jan Serfontein will strive to take advantage of any miscommunication in midfield.

Cronin’s ball-carrying

Sean Cronin goes over for a try despite the efforts of Tommaso Allan Cronin brings superb ball carrying to the mix. Colm O'Neill / INPHO Colm O'Neill / INPHO / INPHO

While losing Rory Best to a calf strain was far from ideal for Schmidt, the benefit is that Leinster’s Sean Cronin comes into the starting XV, bringing with him an exceptional ball-carrying ability.

The 28-year-old has had a few miscued throws in recent times, but will back himself to remedy that against a world-class Springboks line-out. Around the pitch, his quality is well flagged and his presence in the team excites in that regard.

Cronin has put many a back to shame in speed sessions, while his understanding of how defences operate allows him to pick intelligent lines more often that not. With Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy absent, his gainline threat may be essential.

Is Rob Kearney fully fit?

Rob Kearney Kearney has had back issues early on this season. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Leinster’s fullback has been suffering with back issues in recent times, although he has trained fully this week, according to the Irish medical team. Doubts over his fitness are based around the inclusion of Felix Jones on the bench.

That said, the Munster man is fully deserving of his spot in the match day squad, having performed superbly in his leadership role for the province. His ability to make yards with every carry, his excellent rucking work and rock-solid tackling make him exactly the type of player Schmidt values.

It will be intriguing to see how and when Jones is used off the bench, if at all, while there will be close attention on Kearney following any early collisions he is involved in.

Zebo ready to shine

Simon Zebo bursts through to score a try Zebo streaks clear to score against the Pumas during the summer. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Having broken back into the Ireland set-up on June’s tour of Argentina, where he gave several sharp reminders of his attacking ability, Zebo returns to an even bigger stage with a start on the left wing against the Boks.

The 24-year-old has certainly developed his all-round game over the last year as Schmidt has pushed Irish wings to be more than try-scorers and line-breakers. Zebo’s efforts around the breakdown have been notable, while he has chased kicks with renewed focus.

Still, the Cork native brings an element of the unpredictable and cutting edge to Ireland’s backline, which could be crucial in another close battle against Heyneke Meyer’s team.

Mike Ross makes it

Mike Ross and David Kilcoyne Ross remains an important pillar for Ireland. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

There had been doubts this week whether Mike Ross would be fully recovered from his groin issues in time to face the Boks, but it was always likely that Schmidt would go for the 34-year-old at tighthead even if he was not 100% fit.

Such is his experience and reliability that Ireland really couldn’t face into the task of taking on South Africa’s power without him, particularly as Marty Moore is injured at present.

Connacht man Rodney Ah You provides the cover from the bench at tighthead, but Ross is a key man if Ireland are to secure victory.

What do you think of Schmidt’s Ireland team to face the Boks? Would you have gone for something different? Who are the key men for Saturday’s clash?

This article was originally published at 13.25, then updated at 17.00.

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