herald

Sunday 10 December 2017

Schmidt goes with big guns

Rory Best
Rory Best

When it comes right down to it, there are certain players Joe Schmidt will pick as long as they can play.

Out-half Jonathan Sexton, flanker Sean O'Brien and number eight Jamie Heaslip are three of them.

And so the pillars of playmaking, game-breaking and professionalism have been brought back from injury to combat France's special interest forces of Camille Lopez and the unit strength of a well-balanced back row.

The three British & Irish Lions do provide an undeniable security blanket born out of proven world-class experience.

They are the three changes from Italy with Ian Keatley, Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy all giving way, none of them making the replacements.

The shape of things to come for the World Cup is taking root with real impact off the bench from the dynamic trio of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Iain Henderson as well as the excellence of Martin Moore.

As expected, Keatley's specialist role at out-half has cost him involvement, with Ian Madigan's versatility making him the coach's choice to back up Sexton.

No matter the magnificence of the man, there has to be concern at how Sexton will handle the pressure and intensity of Six Nations rugby after a 12-week absence.

O'Brien must be pulling up trees in training to earn a recall, despite a slight hamstring strain in the last minute of Ireland's warm-up against Italy.

Heaslip (below) has finally shaken off the AC shoulder joint problem that had him playing through the pain barrier for Leinster in the Champions Cup last month.

RESPECT

For all the chat about respect for Italy - and it was real - this is where the Six Nations starts, as Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne get to show what they can do against the formidable pairing of Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud.

It will all begin where it always does with the tight-five where Rory Best has passed his return-to-play protocols at a time when concussion is the most sensitive issue in the game.

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

France: S Speeding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, T Thomas; C Lopez, R Kockott; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani, P Pape, Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (capt), B Le Roux, D Chouly.

Verdict: Ireland

ireland v france, tomorrow live rte2/bbc1, (ko 5.0)

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