Next week Joe Schmidt will announce the first selection of his tenure as Irish Coach. Despite playing the “weakest” (which is a relative term) of the three autumn opponents, it is understandable he will want to make sure he registers a win on his first at bat. To that end he will select the strongest team available to him.
Below is the team I expect Joe Schmidt to select:
The back line will take on a familiar look with Murray at scrum-half. Sexton, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll will make up the mid-field. The back three will be Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and a new cap at left wing in David Kearney. Joe Schmidt is a big fan of David Kearney and rightly so. Kearney has been in excellent form with Leinster for the past couple of seasons and with Simon Zebo out injured he deserves a shot.
The pack selection is compromised by injures to Paul O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan. But Joe Schmidt will be very relieved that Rory best and Mike Ross have recovered from injury. So the front-row will also have a familiar look of Healy, Best and Ross. With the absence of O’Connell and Ryan the second-row partnership will be Mike McCarthy and Dan Tuohy. The back row again will have a familiar ring to it with O’Brien, O’Mahony and Heaslip.
The bench is actually the trickiest part of the selection.
Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Stephen Archer will provide the front-row cover. McGrath will get the call over Tom Court based on his performances for his province and he is a selection for the future. Stephen Archer will pip Declan Fitzpatrick as he has greater mobility. Against a team like Samoa that could be important when the game loosens up in the second half and when props generally come off the bench.
Devin Toner and Kevin McLaughlin will provide cover for the back five in the pack. With the injury situation Toner is the obvious choice to cover lock, but it will be a tough call picking McLaughlin over Chris Henry. Henry is an out and out open-side flanker, which could be a case for including him in the starting XV against a team like Samoa. But off the bench McLaughlin’s height gives a option at the tail of the line-out. Also, if O’Mahony picked up an injury, O’Brien can move to open-side and McLaughlin can fill in at #6. Also, O’Brien and O’Mahony can cover #8, which again makes it easy for McLaughlin to slip into the back-row combination.
At reserve scrum-half Eoin Reddan will get the nod. He is a different type of scrum-half to Murray or Boss. He may bring less physicality, but he is quicker to get the ball away and he can change the tempo of the game coming off the bench. That could be very important in the last quarter against Samoa. Paddy Jackson will cover out-half. His form has been excellent for Ulster and his nearest rival Ian Madigan hasn’t started the crunch Heineken games for Leinster.
The cover for the outside backs is the most challenging selection. But in my view Keith Earls should cover the mid-field and the back three. He can cover centre, wing and full-back at a pinch, keeping in mind David Kearney can also cover full-back. The case for Ian Madigan or Luke Marshall isn’t as strong primarily because neither player can cover wing. Marshall basically covers inside centre and bringing him on to cover an injury, other than inside centre, would create a host of adjustments in the back line.
Madigan covers out-half, inside centre and full-back. Were Madigan on the bench, an injury to a wing would require Rob Kearney moving from full-back to wing. Then Madigan could play full-back. If O’Driscoll got injured D’Arcy would have to move to #13, not his most comfortable centre position, and Madigan to inside centre. That would leave the 10/12 channel physical light against the big Samoans. Another option with an injury at outside centre could require Tommy Bowe to move to #13, Rob Kearney to wing and then Madigan again to full-back. Once again that is a lot of positional adjustments for one substitution. On that basis Earls acting as cover is much less complicated.
For the reasons outlined above I believe Joe Schmidt will opt for the following selection:
15. Rob Kearney
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Brian O’Driscoll
12. Gordon D’Arcy
11. David Kearney
10. Jonathan Sexton
9. Conor Murray
1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best
3. Mike Ross
4. Mike McCarthy
5. Dan Tuohy
6. Sean O’Brien
7. Peter O’Mahony
8. Jamie Heaslip
16. Sean Cronin
17. Jack McGrath
18. Stephen Archer
19. Devin Toner
20. Kevin McLoughlin
21. Eoin Reddan
22. Paddy Jackson
23. Keith Earls
Not considered due to Injury: Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo