Friday 15 December 2017

Mind games add to rivalry

Schmidt goes cap in hand to flank Van der Flier and centre McCloskey

Ireland’s Josh van der Flier in action during squad
training at Carton House, Maynooth yesterday.
Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland’s Josh van der Flier in action during squad training at Carton House, Maynooth yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland's head coach Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The relationship between Joe Schmidt and England coach Eddie Jones is one of long history rather than close friendship.

"I've known Eddie for a number of years," said Schmidt.

"I think he was at the (Queensland) Reds when I was at the (Auckland) Blues, so we were probably in opposite camps, even by colour, at that stage.

"I've seen what some of the Brumbies and the Wallabies, and the Reds teams that year, have done.

"I'd have a lot of respect for him as a strategist, as a tactician and as a motivator of the group of men that go out onto the pitch and give it their best shot."

Perhaps, it is as a man where the respect turns to suspicion even, dare one say it, 'hatred', not that Schmidt would ever travel down the route of courting controversy.


It is a sorry state of affairs that Jones waited until two days before the England-Ireland match to voice his concerns about the welfare of Jonathan Sexton.

Maybe the concern is genuine.

Then again, his history of gamesmanship makes that unlikely.

Away from the verbals, Schmidt has seized on 'circumstantial evidence' to hand Leinster's Josh van der Flier and Ulster's Stuart McCloskey their Ireland debuts.

Seán O'Brien (hamstring) and Jared Payne (hamstring) have been ruled out and it just so happens they vacate numbers that have been worn with great conviction and effectiveness this season by the two new men to international rugby.

"It's probably a step they haven't been to before," warned Schmidt.

"You don't know until you've been there just how quick it's going to be, how physical it's going to be."

The promotion of McCloskey to inside centre means Robbie Henshaw switches to the outside where the 22-year-old will become the senior partner.

Where Ireland have always given away weight and size in midfield, they will more than match England's Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph in those departments.

"Yeah, its bizzare isn't it? It does offer an opportunity to get a bit of forward momentum, potentially," admitted Schmidt.

"The one thing that would be a danger would be to call Stuart McCloskey a one trick pony.

"He's got the ability to pass in tight channels and the ability to pass across wide channels. We'd like to think that he can bring more to the role than just being used to carry the ball forward as a blunt instrument.

"With Robbie, he offers those same things. He's got a super passing game and some of those nuances about the timing and opportunity of passing or carrying they build a little bit as players get more experience and understand more about their role."

The loss of Payne is a blow; that of O'Brien a potential game-breaker.

What Ireland will lose in proven world-class impact, they will gain in Van der Flier's always-on engine and attention to detail.

"We have an expectation that Josh will get some pressure at the breakdown," said Schmidt.

"But, he'll also be a really good link and support player for us. He'll bring some real energy and enthusiasm to our defensive work, in the talk, not just post-tackle.

"It's a great opportunity for him and I'm sure he's feeling a weight of responsibility to deliver all those things as well."

There will be a third debut off the bench, presuming Ultan Dillane will be called into action.

In what is certain to be an all-out war, the Connacht second row has all the physical tools to survive in the trenches. he ebullient, super-athletic Mario Itoje will make his debut for England due to injury to Joe Launchbury.

Joe Marler will start ahead of Mako Vunipola in what is a powerful one-two combination at loose-head to England.

"Playing our first game at Twickenham after two away fixtures will be huge for us," said Jones.

"We're determined to put in a strong performance against a clever Irish side who are the benchmark of European rugby."

The benchmark in this Six Nations? After one draw at home to Wales and one loss away to France?


England: M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell, J Nowell; G Ford, B Youngs; J Marler, D Hartley (capt), D Cole, M Itoje, G Kruis, C Robshaw, J Haskell, B Vunipola.

Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble, R Henshaw, S McCloskey, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), M Ross; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, J Heaslip.

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