With Ireland taking on France this evening at the Aviva Stadium in a crucial Six Nations clash, Patrick Ward discusses how Ireland’s bench could be key today.
So here it is. The first time since possibly 2009 that Ireland have their best squad fully-fit for a game and the excitement is intense. This writer says squad, because Cian Healy would obviously be in any best starting side if Joe Schmidt felt he was able to compete from the first minute, yet Jack Mc Grath is a top-class deputy.
The team is not sufficiently weakened with him in the side to warrant too much dissapointement in Healy’s absence.
The Ireland coach has laid his full deck on the table, rolling out the cavalry to announce one of the most exciting Irish starting sides in recent memory with Sean O’Brien, Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton all returning to the fold.
This writer recently claimed that Tommy O’Donnell was in serious need of a big performance were he to be given a chance, but it seems his display last weekend in Rome failed to convince Schmidt of his reliability.
The respective returns of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip always meant that he was going to drop out of the starting 15, but Jordi Murphy’s versatility that allows him to play across the back row gives Schmidt a more rounded option from the bench.
O’Donnell may well find himself on the outside looking in when the World Cup squad is picked, bearing in mind Jack Conan may well be given a chance in the coming months.
There are a few interesting match-ups that will go a long way to deciding this game. Phillip Saint-Andre has made just one change from the side that scored a narrow victory over Scotland in the Stade De France last weekend, with the inexperienced Eddy Ben Arous replacing Alexandre Menini at loosehead.
He will face-off against Mike Ross, who again proved his reliability in the scrum against the Italians last week. Expect Ross to turn the screw on the 24-year-old and he may be able to garner some penalties if he gains the upper hand. This could help settle Ireland in the early stages if Sexton can pick off three pointers from resultant penalties.
The back row brings a mouth watering battle between two players at the opposite ends of their careers. While Thierry Dusautoir has been less prominent as he has become older, Peter O’Mahony has gone from strength to strength in an Irish jersey.
Both blindsides are natural leaders of men, and the battle of the rucks will largely be contested between these two warriors. O’Mahony’s guile and growing ability for turning over ball should see him get the upper hand, but don’t rule out a big game from Dusautoir who is among the most ferocious tacklers in the tournament.
At out half, it is expected that Johnny Sexton will attempt to play a territorial kicking game. The inexperience of his Racing Metro teammate Teddy Thomas will be seen as a soft spot in the French defence. He will play balls over the head of the flamboyant number eleven to try and get Tommy Bowe in for scores.
On the opposite wing, Yoann Huget is hardly a beacon of defensive stability so he too could become a target of ariel bombardment.
The midfield battle is intriguing. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne will face-off against the most experienced centre partnership in this championship outside of Wales. On paper Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana should be next to impossible to stop, yet they never seem to click for too long, playing with Les Bleus.
Fofana provides the panache to Bastareaud’s incredible running power and the Irish centre pairing are going to have to push a high line to stop the Toulon centre from getting up a head of steam.
It looks like everything is falling in place for Ireland. If Sean O’Brien and co. can batter the French for the first 50-60 minutes the introduction of dynamic runners such as Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and Iain Henderson should begin to pierce holes in the French rearguard.
Ireland should look to pick the French off with penalties for the first hour, before the cavalry arrives to find gaps and run in for tries in the final quarter.
Ireland by 10
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones
15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Rémi Lamerat.
Patrick Ward, Pundit Arena