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Saturday 10 December 2016

Schmidt gives sharper Earls nod at centre

McGrath edges out Healy while Henshaw starts

Ireland’s Keith Earls will partner Robbie Henshaw in midfield against Italy tomorrow
Ireland’s Keith Earls will partner Robbie Henshaw in midfield against Italy tomorrow

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has laid it on the line.

"We have an opportunity to qualify (for the quarter-final) this weekend and we're just desperate to do that," he said.

Schmidt has had to cope with the failure of Jared Payne to overcome a bruised foot, has refused to take a gamble on Rob Kearney's gluteal strain - while Italy coach Jacques Brunel welcomes back Sergio Parisse.

"Jacques is a very astute man," imparted Schmidt.

"I've coached teams against Jacques in the Top-14 and come out second a number of times."

There was special mention too for Parisse as he makes his first appearance of the competition from a calf problem.

"We all know what value he adds to a team, not just as an athletic individual and top drawer competitor, also as a leader and a talisman."

There was an immediacy about Schmidt, a typical study in concentration.

"We are very much focussed on the next 48 hours because we know Italy are going to be at their best, having had a couple of games in the tournament.

"We know that the game prior to the tournament was a 23-19 very narrow loss at The Millennium Stadium to Wales.

"We know what they are capable of producing, particularly with Parisse at the helm."

There was a degree of empathy for Payne, who has had to take criticism from some quarters, while being unable to land his answers where it matters - on the pitch.

"There are others really putting pressure on," admitted Schmidt.

"Jared is really disappointed not to be playing this weekend because he misses an opportunity and he offers an opportunity to somebody else."

Herein lies the difference between Kearney and Payne.

The former is guaranteed his place back from Simon Zebo; the latter is not.

Keith Earls is trusted with the pivotal number thirteen jersey ahead of Luke Fitzgerald, who has to settle for the bench, with Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney on the wings.

For once, the Munster man has been able to work with Schmidt and the coach has clearly been impressed with what he has seen.

"It is nice to finally work with him. I certainly gave it a lot of shots.

"He was pretty keen to get started a number of times and every time he picked up an injury prior to the bracket of games we were about to enter into.

"It's been great to have him in the group. It's added to the real contest for those back three, middle three players.

"He and Luke Fitzgerald are very adequate no matter what position they play through those bigger numbers in the team.

"It does just give us a little bit of flexibility in how we mix and match those players.

"We just felt that Keith in the pre-season match has shown a real sharpness at centre and it was a way to have Tommy and Dave Kearney on the pitch at the same time.

"I think those three players can all link up and contribute. It makes for a fairly attacking-minded group.

"At the same time, I think he made 13 out of 13 tackles in the pre-season game. Defensively, he's been very sound.

"There's elements of his game that continue to grow," he added.

"I guess they have been visible on the outside. I think they can be visible through the middle of the pitch too."

Robbie Henshaw will play his first minutes of the World Cup in a new and positive partnership with Earls inside a super-talented back three of Bowe, Kearney and Zebo.

Jack McGrath has held off the late charge of Cian Healy at loose-head with the Clontarf forward set to give real impact from the bench.

The solid scrummaging of Rory Best and Mike Ross will come under greater scrutiny against the Italian front three.

Iain Henderson has been confirmed as the other first choice second row, although Devin Toner has edged out Donnacha Ryan as the back-up lock.

The back row is intact with Chris Henry winning his one-on-one with Jordi Murphy as cover for Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

Ireland: S Zebo; T Bowe, K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross, I Henderson, P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Italy: L McLean; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, G Garcia, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori; M Aguerro, A Manici, L Cittadini, Q Geldenhuys, J Furno, F Minto, S Favaro, S Parisse (capt).

Verdict: Ireland

Ireland v Italy, tomorrow, live tv3 (KO 4.45)

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