Six Nations 2016 Ireland v Wales: Joe Schmidt puts faith in Payne to show class
There was a mix of the cautious and the carefree yesterday when Joe Schmidt confirmed his Ireland team to take on Wales tomorrow (Aviva Stadium, 3pm).
While, as reported in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, Munster's CJ Stander will make his first-ever international appearance as a starter and the flamboyant Simon Zebo replaces the injured Rob Kearney at full-back, Schmidt resisted the temptation to throw Ulster's in-form centre pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall into a head-to-head with Welsh duo Jon Davies and Jamie Roberts.
Their Ulster team-mate Jared Payne and Connacht youngster Robbie Henshaw have been the Kiwi's preferred midfield options since his compatriot Payne qualified on residency back in November 2014.
The duo were at the heart of Ireland's backline throughout last season's title - including the sole loss to Wales in Millennium Stadium - but injuries to both at the World Cup mean they have started together just once since.
Kearney's hamstring strain gave Schmidt an opportunity to move Payne to full-back, where he was in great form for Ulster last month, and alter his midfield but the two-time championship winner instead has kept faith with his tried and trusted and handed the number 15 jersey to Zebo.
With only limited time together since the squad assembled at the beginning of last week, Schmidt acknowledged that familiarity played a big part in his decision.
"When we got the group together we looked at how they trained, and looked at how they slotted in," he said.
"To be honest we trained last Tuesday, Thursday Friday and we've had three sessions this week so it's not like you have a wealth of opportunity to measure players against each other and then make decisions and particularly not a wealth of time to build a combination.
"I think we looked quite hard at the Stuart McCloskey/ Luke Marshall combination because that was already a settled one and we had the opportunity to slot in the combination that we've seen and utilised right through the previous Six Nations.
"Those two have done a super job. Last year against Wales Jared beat the most defenders for us and made the most metres.
"He played a sterling game and at the same time Robbie was one of our go-to players."
Schmidt also revealed that Kearney's hamstring strain should not prevent the Leinsterman returning to training ahead of next week's showdown with France and expressed every confidence in Zebo as a stand-in.
"It's a very minor strain that should see him train hopefully on Tuesday but by the latest Thursday," said Schmidt of the two-time Lion.
"Things can tighten up during the session or post the session.
"That's a risk we try to manage. There's no tear but there is a little discomfort that would signal it's a risk to push him along.
"Simon has played there for us before. He played there as recently as Italy in the World Cup and against England (in a warm-up) prior to that.
"He's a guy who has all the skills to play at the back. We expect they'll kick on us a fair bit.
"He's very good in the air, he's got a very food left boot.
"There are a couple of things he offers that are quite similar to Rob Kearney."
While there'll be no debut for McCloskey, the form forward in Ireland has been rewarded with a first cap.
Stander, who qualified for Ireland on residency back in October, starts in the six jersey in a back-row that has been deprived the services of the destructive Sean O'Brien.
While Schmidt says the Tullow native was close to being selected despite a hamstring strain, the memory of last season's opener against Italy - when O'Brien pulled out in the warm-up to be replaced by Tommy O'Donnell, who again will deputise tomorrow - saw him err on the side of caution.
"He was just on the edge of being able to play," said Schmidt.
"We'd have no concerns about him being available for next week. We just thought that if the same thing happened that happened last year, when he pulled out against Italy at the very last moment, it's very unsettling.
"Tommy O'Donnell came in and did a fantastic job. We just thought we'd give ourselves some certainty and give Sean the opportunity to train fully next week. Hopefully there's still a fair bit to play for at that stage.
"(Stander) has been fitting in really well. He's certainly a committed character. He's made sure he's slotted in as well as he can.
"We just thought he'd be a good mix for us, especially in the absence of Sean O'Brien."
While the team would have a decidedly different complexion with Kearney and O'Brien in the fold - not to mention Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, Tommy Bowe and Peter O'Mahony - Schmidt says that Ireland will win provided those fit to be selected are at their best.
Schmidt added: "Every team is beatable but you've really got to be right on the money."