Joe Schmidt has made six changes to the team to play Australia next Saturday. It may seem like a lot of changes on the face of it, but it is not quite that dramatic.
Four of the six changes were expected. Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien were always going to come back for this game. The surprise selections are Eoin Reddan and Luke Marshall.
Eoin Reddan’s selection is hardly a risk as he is a hugely experienced international. Joe Schmidt has previously rotated Eoin Reddan with Issac Boss when he was coach to Leinster, so it is more of the same in that department. In fact there is a case to be made for starting either player, as it is a choice of style rather than ability.
Conor Murray has a big physical presence around the breakdown in both attack and defence, while Eoin Reddan brings a quicker distribution and play making skills set to the position. On that basis Reddan’s selection could be a case of “horses for courses” or a means of keeping both scrum-halves on their toes.
The selection of Luke Marshall has surprised many. But Joe Schmidt did drop a hint it may happen after selecting Gordon D’Arcy for last week’s game. He mentioned the selection of D’Arcy was to put an experienced player alongside the less experienced Paddy Jackson. Once Jonathan Sexton came back, putting Luke Marshall between Sexton and O’Driscoll in the mid-field is a much smaller risk.
On mid-field selection, the bigger picture demands that Schmidt begins to find cover for inside centre moving forward to RWC 2015. He obviously sees Marshall as having that potential. Marshall’s selection does not mean the end for Gordon D’Arcy, far from it. But if Marshall delivers it will certainly cement some depth into the inside centre position.
But the elephant in the room in the centre department is the much more urgent challenge, to find a replacement for Brian O’Driscoll who retires at the end of the year. The solution to that problem has yet to take shape, although many feel that the Ulster centre/full-back, Jarrod Payne, may be Joe Schmidt’s choice. The New Zealander will become eligible for selection next year.
With Paul O’Connell coming back the retention of Devin Toner over Mike McCarthy may have raised eyebrows in certain quarters. But Toner played very well last weekend. Around the field he carried a lot of ball and got through a lot of work, apart from his set-piece duties. He is also a banker jumper in the line-out and with Paul O’Connell, will probably target disrupting the Australians on their throw-ins.
There are also some developmental selections on the bench. Stephen Archer comes in directly replacing Declan Fitzpatrick and Robbie Henshaw replaces David Kearney. This is an opportunity to introduce two more players to the cauldron of test rugby against a Tier 1 nation.
The retention on the bench of Ian Madigan over Paddy Jackson is more to do with positional cover rather than promoting Madigan over Jackson. Last week Jackson delivered a solid steady game and on that basis can still regard himself as the back-up to Jonathan Sexton.
Putting Madigan on the bench gives direct cover for fly-half and inside centre while Robbie Henshaw covers outside centre, wing and full-back. So both players can substitute every position outside of scrum-half without requiring any shuffling in the back line to accommodate them. That makes complete sense in getting as much balance as possible on the bench.
Overall Joe Schmidt has made a smart selection. He has strengthened the team from last week with the introduction of Sexton, Healy, O’Connell and O’Brien. He has introduced some young blood in Luke Marshall and surrounded him with experienced players in D’Arcy and O’Driscoll. He has some more young blood on the bench in Archer and Henshaw, who will almost certainly see game time at some point.
But most important, he has selected a team capable of taking down the Wallabies.