Joe Schmidt faces a number of tough decisions ahead of Ireland’s game with Australia.
Four days after Ireland’s defeat at the hands of New Zealand, and the embers of the controversies that overshadowed the game are still burning.
However, despite the 21-9 loss against the All Blacks, Ireland came out of the game with a great deal of credit, validating their historic victory over the same opposition in Chicago earlier this month.
Nevertheless, after last Saturday’s physical encounter, Joe Schmidt’s side must prepare themselves for their final contest of the Autumn series against Michael Cheika’s Australia.
For their part, while the Wallabies have yet to find the form that saw them make it all the way to the World Cup final last year, they are recording victories and are showing a resilience that seemed to be lacking during the Rugby Championship.
Although Cheika had planned to rotate some of his squad against France, with Israel Folau, Michael Hooper and Dane Haylett-Petty not included for the game in Paris, the former Leinster coach was forced to recall Bernard Foley after Quade Cooper suffered a last minute injury.
Notwithstanding the fact that Foley is likely to start for the third consecutive week against Ireland, Cheika will have a number of well rested players to chose from.
This raises a number of questions for Joe Schmidt, particularly in the backrow and midfield. Not only does uncertainty surround the availability of CJ Stander and Rob Kearney, but Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw have been ruled out.
The sheer physicality of Saturday’s encounter will also have taken it’s toll on the players involved. Ireland demonstrated a monstrous work rate, incessantly carrying the ball against an All Black defence who returned fire with a series of massive hits.
Consequently, Schmidt will not only have to replace his injured players, but possibly make changes to counter Australia’s rotation policy.
However the Irish coach has great deal of squad depth at his disposal. Cian Healy can seamlessly replace Jack McGrath in the front row, while Ultan Dillane can come straight in at lock after missing out with injury last weekend.
Paddy Jackson should come in at fly-half to partner Conor Murray at half back, while Simon Zebo, and Andrew Trimble remain favourites to retain their places in the back three.
Nevertheless, it remains impossible to know who will start alongside Jamie Heaslip in the back row. If CJ Stander is ruled out, then the number six jersey becomes available, with Josh van der Flier, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony all competing for a starting spot.
Ireland could of course fight fire with fire and go with O’Brien and van der Flier if Cheika selects both David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
However, as with last week, we have to ask how much does O’Brien have left in the tank. Following Schmidt’s selection last Thursday, it appeared as though O’Brien would start and be replaced by his Leinster team-mate during the second half.
Stander’s injury laid ruin to such a strategy, and saw O’Brien remain the field for the full 80 minutes. While his performance was nothing short of superb, it must have taken a great deal out of a player who hasn’t seen much rugby during the last 12 months.
This opens the door for O’Mahony to start at blindside, but he too is only returning from injury. Therefore if Stander is unavailable, it would seem likely that Schmidt will stick with the backrow that finished the game against New Zealand, and keep the Munster captain and Iain Henderson in reserve.
The midfield is another area where Ireland will have to make changes. Despite the performance of Gary Ringrose, it is unlikely that the Leinster centre will start against the Wallabies.
If it was only Sexton or Henshaw who were injured the chances of his inclusion would have been boosted, but as Jackson, Ringrose, Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding remain relatively inexperienced at international level, playing three of them in tandem might not necessarily be the best idea.
Consequently, Jared Payne will be expected to retain the 13 jersey, with Marshall or Olding starting at inside centre. With the inform Reece Hodge set to start for the Wallabies, the battle between the respective midfield playmakers will be interesting to say the least.
Finally, unless he is in fact sidelined, Rob Kearney is unlikely to be jettisoned, but if the Leinster fullback is ruled out, then Zebo will be favourite to wear the 15 jersey, with Keith Earls expected to start on the wing.
[tie_slide]1. Cian Healy (Leinster)
[tie_slide]2. Rory Best (Ulster)
[tie_slide]3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
[tie_slide]4. Ultan Dillane (Connacht)
[tie_slide]5. Devin Toner (Leinster)
[tie_slide]6. Sean O’Brien (Leinster)
[tie_slide]7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster)
[tie_slide]8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)
[tie_slide]9. Conor Murray (Munster)
[tie_slide]10. Paddy Jackson (Ulster)
[tie_slide]11. Simon Zebo (Munster)
[tie_slide]12. Luke Marshall (Ulster)
[tie_slide]13. Jarred Payne (Ulster)
[tie_slide]14. Andrew Trimble (Ulster)
[tie_slide]15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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Read More About: All Blacks, Australia, cian healy, cj stander, Gary Ringrose, Ireland, jack mcgrath, Jamie Heaslip, Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton, josh van der flier, michael cheika, new zealand, peter o'mahony, robbie henshaw, sean o'brien, Top Story, Ultan Dillane