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Sunday 4 December 2016

Joe Schmidt keeps his faith in form

Henderson and Earls rewarded at the expense of Toner and Bowe

Ireland's Iain Henderson during squad training
Ireland's Iain Henderson during squad training

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has stayed true to his word in favouring form over reputation and past accomplishments.

He has taken the decision to put out what is surely his idea of Ireland’s best available team and replacements against Canada at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow (KO 2.30, TV3).

The advance of second row Iain Henderson and wing Keith Earls has been made at the expense of Devin Toner and Tommy Bowe, respectively.

The ruthlessness for which Schmidt has become known can double up, as it has done here, with justice seen to be exercised.

There is nothing Toner has done to be dropped from an almighty height.

It is more about how Henderson has blasted his way inside what looked like a bullet-proof first 15 at the end of the Six Nations.

Worse again, Toner may even have dropped another rung on the ladder given how Donnacha Ryan is listed ahead of the Moynalvey man on the bench. 

It is a different case when it comes to the restoration of faith in Dave Kearney and Keith Earls, two men hauled down by injury last season. 

First, the failure of Andrew Trimble to beat the clock from his own travails and, then, the plummet of Tommy Bowe’s long-held standards made the wide slots available for rent.

Leinster’s wingman Dave Kearney sealed the deal with an outstanding impact against England to nail down one jersey.

“I think going back two years Dave Kearney was exceptional for us,” professed Schmidt.

“I know Andrew Trimble was as well. Unfortunately for Andrew, he was right in the frame for us and picked up a second injury. 

“For Dave, he was back playing and playing very well. He deserves an opportunity.”

The other was there to be taken by Bowe, Simon Zebo, Earls or Luke Fitzgerald.

In truth, Earls has been the one who has made Schmidt’s basic principles – aerial domination, allied to sound decisions in defence – a forte this summer.

The unfortunate hamstring injury to Robbie Henshaw – Schmidt is “quietly confident” the Athlone centre will be fit for Romania on Sunday week – left a vacancy at 12 where specialist Darren Cave will be crestfallen not to be chosen.

“Robbie, right at the end of training on Tuesday, felt his hamstring tighten a little,” said Schmidt.

“We got it scanned, there’s a bit of blood there. He is okay to walk and jog, but he does feel tightness and it would be a risk to push him.”

Schmidt has reached back into his memory bank to rely on Fitzgerald for what he has done elsewhere and for the New Zealander at Leinster.

“It is ironic,” stated Schmidt.

“This time four years ago he was starting at 12 for Leinster. He’s had a fair bit of game time for me there. 

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in him playing 12 or 13 He has already played 13 for us in the pre World Cup test matches.

“We felt he did pretty well there and has earned another opportunity.”

Half-backs Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray will be united behind the automatic back row trio of Peter O’Mahony, Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

The certainty Rob Kearney provides from full-back is welcome as he starts for just the second time in five internationals. 

Jared Payne is really beginning to hum in his role at outside centre, if his display against England is anything to go by. 

Cian Healy will be sprung from the bench for what will be his first appearance of the season in a graduated return to action.

Nathan White has beaten off the claims of Tadhg Furlong to man the back-up shirt to Mike Ross at tight-head. 

Ian Madigan has held off Paddy Jackson as understudy to Jonathan Sexton and Zebo has moved ahead of Bowe in the rankings as back-three cover.

In terms of the here and now, the historical facts against Canada weigh heavily in Ireland’s favour.

They have won five and drawn one of the half-dozen internationals between the two countries, including a bloodless 46-19 win at the first World Cup back in 1987.

Sadly, the Canucks have lost their inspirational captain Tyler Ardron to a knee injury.

The armband passes to their talismanic second row Jamie Cudmore. 

There are known threats down the flanks from DTH van der Merwe of the Scarlets and Jeff Hassler of the Ospreys. 

The North Americans problem will be winning the smooth, fast ball required to put these two one-on-one with an isolated defender.

Ireland: R Kearney; D Kearney, J Payne, L Fitzgerald, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross, I Henderson, P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.

Canada: M Evans; J Hassler, C Hearn, N Blevins, DTH van der Merwe; N Hirayama, G McRorie; H Buydens, R Barkwill, D Wooldridge, B Beukeboom, J Cudmore (capt), K Gilmour, J Moonlight, A Carpenter.

Verdict: Ireland.

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