When Joe Schmidt arrived at the team selection press conference this afternoon, it was hardly a surprise to anyone present for the vast majority of players selected. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the selection.
Ultimate respect to France
The side named by Joe Schmidt is the strongest selection given the personnel available for selection. The front five sees four changes from the unit that faced Italy in Rome two weeks ago.
Front Five Changes:
Cian Healy, Rory Best, James Ryan and Iain Henderson all come into the front five with Sean Cronin and Quinn Roux missing out on the match day squad altogether due to the well documented line out malfunctions during the Italian test match.
Back Row Better Balanced:
The back row unit sees CJ Stander return to the eight jersey. It had to happen given the Jordi Murphy experiment two weeks ago at the position failed to get off the ground. O’Mahony and van der Flier looks to have better balance than two weeks ago when the back row personnel struggled to create quick, effective ruck ball for Murray and Sexton to work with.
Half Back Cohesion Required:
The half backs will hope for a better afternoon individually and collectively this weekend. Rome was a frustrating fixture for both players. The hope is that with the back row personnel switch ups that the ruck ball issue will be improved upon. Murray’s box kicking should be far improved and Sexton perhaps will look to create field position with the boot instead of forcing plays on the gain line where he has been prone to a couple of late hits.
Ringrose return a timely boost:
The back line options sees the welcome of Garry Ringrose at thirteen. His speed, skill set will be a boost and with his partnership with Aki whose abrasive ball carrying potentially could create opportunities for Ringrose to impress.
The back three was never going to change for this test match. Kearney is the full back resident and now becomes an even more key fulcrum to this Irish side than the half backs. Kearney’s experience and performance on the big day is too valuable for this side. If the player goes down injured for any extended period, Ireland management will be scrambling for depth chart options that are in truth untested at the test match level.
Sub Bench Impact:
The bench is loaded with immediate impact. Munster front row options in Scannell, Ryan and Kilcoyne will provide mobility and assurance in the set piece. Dillane gets the nod over Roux and with Tadhg Beirne lurking in the background to get into this match day squad, only a big impact from Dillane will suffice. Jack Conan comes back into the squad after missing out against Italy.
It would have been incredibly harsh if John Cooney had lost his place on the bench to Kieran Marmion. Cooney has had insufficient game minutes to impress but the minutes that he has been on, he has been solid with the boot and passing has been good. Carty gets another opportunity to impress off the bench and will hope for more game minutes than the three minutes afforded to the Connacht Rugby star in Rome.
The squad is talented, strong and well organized. The key question is whether Ireland’s confidence is restored sufficiently for an upturn in performance levels in the set piece and with ball in hand. The word cohesion will be duly observed.
France Team Selection Consistency!
France and Jacques Brunel were relieved to get their championship back on track with a bonus point try win over a depleted Scottish side in Paris two weeks ago. The Toulouse back line and half-back fulcrums continue for this test match which will provide cohesion and understanding in these areas of the park.
What to look out for:
The kicking game contest to me is an intriguing facet of Sunday’s contest. Sexton and Murray must establish field position early in this test match; their kicking and exploitation of the French back three defensively needs to be on point to allow Ireland to settle into this contest. Failure to do so and France will have got over one massive obstacle to victory.
The set piece as well will be fascinating viewing. The scrum set piece looks abrasive. Both front row units possess world stars in this area and an early platform from this set piece could be a decisive advantage for either side.
The back row battle and the breakdown looks suited for van der Filer and O’Mahony to impress. The French back row unit is big, physical and abrasive with ball in hand but the breakdown exchanges look poised for Ireland given the increased mobility of the Ireland back row unit.
A fixture where we will see quite quickly which side has confidence to express themselves on the park and who will look to play conservative and wait for the other team to make a telling mistake. France will look to play with openness while Ireland will look to start with well structured, well organized play calls to provide confidence in the ranks.
Ireland have yet to fully fire in this competition but I think this could change on Sunday. This side is pretty close to performing at a high level for eighty minutes and if the half backs can provide early platform in their game management, expect Ireland to tire the French pack sufficiently to win this contest (creating penalty opportunities) in the third and fourth quarters.
A bonus point try win may be pushing it for Ireland given potential inclement weather conditions in the forecast. The focus is the performance and how Ireland on both sides of the ball have improved since Rome. Ireland by ten points after a closely fought opening thirty minutes.