8 February 2016
By Tadhg Peavoy
Most of the selection talk emerging ahead of Ireland’s clash with France on Saturday revolves around Ireland’s back five.
The lack of a rapier edge in attack was a notable element of Ireland’s play in drawing with Wales on Saturday and how to change that is a burning question.
The very clear option is to keep it Henshaw, Payne, Trimble, replace the injured Keith Earls and keep Simon Zebo at fullback.
However, there is a myriad of other options at Joe Schmidt’s disposal. If Rob Kearney returns from injury he could slot in at 15, with Zebo moving out to replace Earls. However, could Joe and Co brandish something more surprising for the clash with Guy Noves’ French outfit.
Moving Payne to 15 – without doubt his best position – and pushing Henshaw out to 13 and having Stuart McCloskey at 12, seems a very vaild option. And one that oozes creativity.
With that, Zebo could still be accommodated on that wing spot, where he appears more at home at present, and can damage with ball in hand, if Jonny Sexton spreads it out there early.
I am hugely in favour of Garry Ringrose getting game time at 13, but this game is too soon. Later in the championship, or on the summer tour, seems a better option for the prodigiously talented second centre.
Luke Marshall has also put his hand up, but his lack of size could be a concern in ties in Paris and London. And that is likely to keep him out of the XV.
A lot depends on Rob Kearney’s fitness. If he is available to play this weekend is he now a guaranteed starter for Schmidt? Or does the General feel Kearney has to earn his way back into the 15 shirt? Thus delaying his return until the clash at Twickenham or beyond?
Likewise, Schmidt is a huge fan of his brother Dave, who knows the system as good as any back-three man in the system. And he could yet slot in directly for Earls, which means Zebo could drop out of the 15 altogether.
So many permutations, which once again point to the strength in depth of this squad. The strength in depth that deserted Ireland against Argentina at the Rugby World Cup.
As always the decisions hinge on form on the closed training pitch at Carton House this week and the Ireland brains trust will know by Wednesday most likely what they want to do in the City of Light.
But the options are there for Ireland. Many of them. A creative selection I feel could bring victory in Paris, teeing Ireland up for a very real tilt at securing a third championship over the course of the last three rounds.