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Dublin: 4 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019

5 talking points on Ireland's team for the massive RWC clash with France

Keith Earls has a man mountain of a task ahead of him.

Sean Farrell reports from Celtic Manor

A physical mismatch in the centre

THE ABSENCE OF Jared Payne means Schmidt has had to go with a midfield combination first forged just a week ago.

Keith Earls is a terrific rugby player in terrific form. However, Ireland’s record World Cup try-scorer hasn’t always had his own way when moved in from wing to centre at the highest level.

On Sunday the Limerick man will face his biggest challenge (in every sense) in the role. Earls will stand opposite Mathieu Bastareaud, a behemoth of a centre who will trundle in to contact with a 30kg advantage over the light and agile Munster stalwart.

Robbie Henshaw supported by Jared Payne Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There are two plus sides. Firstly, Earls and Robbie Henshaw – himself feeling his way back to match fitness after missing the two opening pool games with a hamstring problem – have at least had the Italy game to sync up as a midfield combination. Had Payne been fit to start, Schmidt would have sent his team out with a 12-13 axis that had played just a single game together, with limited training time, in the six months since sealing the Six Nations in Murrayfield.

Secondly, and most positively, is the sense that Schmidt’s selection is internally focused, putting faith in the strengths of his own team rather than fretting too much about how France may choose to take advantage.

That said, Schmidt and defence coach Les Kiss will have the side well-drilled to meet whatever comes from Les Bleus and all that powder that was kept nice and dry during the summer will be set alight.

Schmidt’s strongest team? Maybe just one short

Since the New Zealander took over as Ireland coach in 2013, he has had major injury concerns to deal with in various areas of the pitch. He was close to having a full and fit deck to choose from for this massive game, the focal point to the all his preparation, but the foot injury sustained by Payne against Romania flared up to force the coach to stick with the Earls-Henshaw combination.

Outside of the 13 channel, the line-up is exactly how Schmidt would want it. The back three is the same combination as he picked to start against New Zealand in 2013, the pack is only one name off the automatic starting eight for the two Six Nations successes – subtract Cian Healy in 2015, Sean O’Brien in 2014.

Tommy Bowe, Sean O'Brien and Dave Kearney Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It was only injury to Tommy Bowe that brought Andrew Trimble back in to such brilliant effect in that first title run, while Dave Kearney made his international debut the same day as the head coach and went on to face New Zealand and play all 400 minutes of the 2014 Championship.

Set-piece solidified

We’re huge fans of Iain Henderson at The42, but the addition of Devin Toner is perfectly understandable.

The argument to include Henderson and Healy is similar: ‘Jack McGrath/Toner haven’t put a foot wrong, but…’

In promoting Healy to the starting line-up Schmidt has added a powerful ball-carrying option, but crucially, he has also reinstated the country’s best scrummager.

IrelandÕs Devin Toner and assistant coach Simon Easterby Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On top of the obvious upside to having the 6’10″ Toner as a line-out target, his weight lends further power to the scrum and also a maul that malfunctioned badly against Italy.

As for impact off the bench, Henderson will provide that in spades whenever he is called upon. However, Ireland are a much better front-runner than game-changer. So the hope is that Healy will be able to get Ireland on to the front foot and in front on the scoreboard over the course of his personal 50 minute match, with the ultra consistent and efficient McGrath coming in to make sure there are no loose ends.

Trusted lieutenants for the big occasion

Talk to players about Schmidt and some words keep coming up over and over again – ‘homework,’ ‘details’ – and the provincial stars of Ulster, Munster and Connacht certainly feel they have catching up to do on the years of study Leinster players have put in under the Kiwi.

Across the 23 for Sunday’s Pool D decider, the tight calls appear to have come down to the New Zealander’s long-term trust.

Joe Schmidt with Dave Kearney Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Bowe may have had a nightmarish showing in Twickenham, but as soon as that was behind him, Schmidt was happy to put faith in the wing’s long track record of excellence in the air and on the ground to include him for this tournament-defining fixture. Dave Kearney over Simon Zebo, Toner over Henderson? The long-standing trust and familiarity shines through.

Even on to the bench, Luke Fitzgerald is preferred not just because he is capable of covering centre and wing, but because he knows the Schmidt systems inside out no matter what position he is named in.

We could go on and on all the way to Nathan White who was involved in Leinster’s Heineken Cup win before heading to Connacht and finally earning his first Ireland cap before celebrating his 34th birthday this summer.

Healy’s heroic return

In an era when surgery on limbs are getting more and more routine for professionals, the neck remains an absolutely terrifying thing.

Cian Healy Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Yet five months after going under the knife, the man they call Church is in the starting line-up for the biggest game of the year (so far). Healy has proven himself a quick healer in the past, showing Wolverine-like abilities to fast-track a comeback from horrendous sounding ankle and hamstring injuries, but this is something else entirely.

Millimeters can make all the difference between never walking again and being where Healy is today — 28 years of age and back to being number one.

Here’s the Ireland team to face France in Cardiff this Sunday

Letter from France camp: Les Blues incredibly confident for Ireland clash

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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