So here we are – we are entering squeaky bum time in the Six Nations, and Ireland are on top of the table. Sweet, we’d have taken that, even if the England game was ultimately a disappointment. Sure, we probably aren’t favourites – the fine yeomen of Stuart Lancaster’s rosy-cheeked people’s commune probably deserve that honour given their tougher game is in the Cabbage Patch. We have to go to the Stade de France and face those olive-skinned, chisel-jawed, suave and nonchalant bleus – where with the merest insouciant lean on the goalpost, Gauloise in hand, the Frenchman generally makes the Irish rugger man weak at the knees and porous in defence. Still, we have it in our hands – if we deal with Italy the way we should and win any way in Paree, its unlikely to matter what the rest get up to. Additionally, unlike in 2007, the timing of the fixtures is assuredly in our favour, with our game last on the final day.
So, home to Italy (Six Nations record for this fixture: P7 W7 points difference +143) and away to France (Six Nations record for this fixture: P7 W1 D1 L5 points difference -97) – looks like the second game will be tougher. We’d want to be making sure our players are in tip-top condition for the hair-raising bus ride through the banlieues of Saint-Denis, right? You’d think so. And Ireland haven’t had many ‘on-the-run injuries so far, which has allowed Schmidt to keep personnel changes to a minimum so far. Much like in 2009, it would appear to be prime time for rotating a few players.
Back then, Deccie gave a rest day to Jirry, Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O’Leary and Paddy Wallace in favour of Besty, Denis Leamy, Strings and Dorce – and the only other semi-convincing rotation option would have been Geordy Murphy for Bob, to which he apparently gave strong consideration but ultimately decided might risk over-rotating. It was a shrewd managerial move; it concentrated minds on Scotland when the temptation for excited minds was to fast-forward to the decider in Cardiff and fostered competition for places and a feeling of involvement for those on the fringes of the team. Crucially, he did it only where he knew there was little between those coming in and those going out, though on reflection perhaps he got lucky that Denis Leamy got injured, harsh as that may sound. Heaslip had been Ireland’s best player and it looked borderline foolhardy to leave him out, and in the event he came on early for Leamy, had a stormer and scored the winning try.
Right now, the Milky Bar Kid could conceivably change 10 of team – we’re blessed with many more options, even without Fez, Sean O’Brien and all our wingers. Of course, he’s unlikely to do that, because such a massive scalpel to the team is fraught with risk – just look at this time 12 months ago. England rotated a couple of names in and out of the team in the exact corresponding fixture last year; home to Italy in round four. They were looking to win the Championship too – in fact they were looking for a Grand Slam – but the move backfired. One of those coming in to the team was Danny Care, who had been sensational off the bench in the previous game against France, but starting the match seemed to derail him. The iconic image of him kicking the ball backwards in his own 22 lingers in the memory. England found themselves hanging on for a fortuitous victory and they carried the anti-momentum through to the final match where they were thrashed by a rampant Wales. So, the message is clear: rotate sensibly and respect Italy!
So what can we expect? All three of the front row backups will be hopeful of playing, but we can’t see such wholesale change – Marty Moore looks the only one odds-on to start, and might even be auditioning for the shirt in France. With Besty such a key man on the ground and in the maul, it’s likely Joe will leave him in and let Sean Cronin be content with 30 minutes provided the game is won by then. Jack McGrath for DJ Church is a possible – Schmidt has shown trust in McGrath before and often rotated Healy at Leinster. But in O’Brien’s absence Healy is our best ball carrier and while McGrath is also strong in this facet of play, it looks like too much of a risk.
In the row, Devin Toner has been one of the success stories of the championship, but it mightn’t be a bad idea to give him a rest here, with either NWJMB or Donnacha Ryan to come in. Ryan/POC is a more established partnership, but Henderson is in better form and has more time in camp – we think he could get the nod, and if he grabs this opportunity the next coach to drop him for Ireland might be Ronan O’Gara for RWC27. Against all that, Henderson is almost the prototype impact substitute for the modern game, and Schmidt may stick with his first-choice partnership in order to unleash NWJMB against tiring legs.
With Peter O’Mahony an injury doubt, it’s essential someone is practising the anthems angrily in front of a mirror – it’s hard to know where Ireland would be without his unique brand of tuneless pre-game anger. If O’Mahony is in any way doubtful, it would seem foolish indeed to risk him ahead of the Paris match. He’s become a cornerstone of the team, even if England dealt with his threat impressively, and will be badly needed for the final game in the series. If he’s fit he’ll play, but if not Rhys Ruddock would be a solid deputy. With Chris Henry possibly Ireland’s player of the series to date (certainly he is the most consistent) and Jamie Heaslip peerless at eight (and Tommy O’Donnell injured in any case), we can’t envisage any more than one backrow change.
For the half-back pairing, the game has probably come too soon for Eoin Reddan, and, at any rate, we think he might make a change at fly-half and better to keep Murray in there for some continuity. Is Johnny Sexton out for up to six weeks, as claimed by Racing Metro? Unlikely. Is he fully fit and 100% ready for an international game? Equally unlikely, given he didn’t play this weekend. O’Reilly in the ST pointed out that Sexton had played 38 games in the last nine months, and he should be managed. Can Ireland beat Italy at home with Wee PJ manning the ship? Of course they can. We’ll need Sexton for France, so let’s be sensible. We can have him on the bench in case it all goes to pot.
The centres will be the same. Brian O’Driscoll no longer looks infallible, but he showed against England that he still has the class, but he needs a bit of help from those around him. This looked a prime opportunity to get Luke Marshall into the team, and Ireland could really do with his strong running and pace, but his old concussion issues have resurfaced with particularly awful timing. We can’t imagine how frustrating it is for him, and Schmidt.
Out wide, the call for change is most compelling. For all the honest endeavour of Andrew Trimble and Little Bob, we could do with some pace and penetration, and obviously the internet needs little opportunity to discuss Simon Zebo. Have either of the starters done anything specific to deserve being dropped? No, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a change to strengthen the team. Tommy Bowe looked in regal form on his return on Friday night, and although he played just 40 minutes, we thought he’d go straight back in; but he hasn’t made the squad. Maybe it’s just too early for him, but it must have been really tempting to just go for it. Luke Fitzgerald’s wretched luck continues, so it means a timely recall for Simon Zebo. Everyone wants to see the happy-go-lucky flyer in green, and not just because we are all exhausted discussing whether his possible defensive, workrate and celebratory deficiencies are what are keeping him out of the squad. Internet, you can have a rest now! A full-scale return to the First XV is probably still unlikely, but he could knock McFadden off the bench.
So we reckon in will come Moore, Henderson, Ruddock and Jackson, with returns to the bench for Ryan, Reddan and Zebo. That should shake it up a little. It worked for Deccie in 2009, no reason to think it isn’t the best approach five long years later. Ireland should beat Italy, and hopefully at least one or two of those selected can at least make their case for the crucial trip to Paris.