Schmidt's 'tight call' at axing Ulster ace Henderson
After an eye-catching team announcement at Celtic Manor yesterday, Joe Schmidt is hoping he has made the right call on a number of "narrow decisions" for tomorrow's crunch clash with France.
The head coach leads Ireland into the crucial Pool D decider with his most hotly-debated selection of the World Cup to date as Iain Henderson drops to the bench despite his man-of-the-match display against the Italians at the Olympic Stadium a week ago and Keith Earls is given the nod to replace Jared Payne in the outside centre position.
With the French lineout an area of real strength Devin Toner has been promoted to the starting line-up, filling the number four jersey that most assumed Henderson had made his own over the last two months.
Schmidt is a coach who excels in keeping players on their toes but even still the Ulster dynamo will have expected to retain his place after his recent run of form.
He has been hailed by media the world over following his performances in this tournament while closer to home both Willie John McBride and David Humphreys have tipped him as a British and Irish Lion-in-waiting.
Schmidt did hint, however, that at least part of the decision to demote the 23-year-old was made with next weekend's quarter-final in mind while also tipping him to excel back in the impact sub role where he started his Test career.
"It was another really tight call," admitted the coach.
"Dev has been a big game player for us and he gives us a little bit more lineout capability. Iain will add value and, again, it is a case of making sure that we have a few things covered for next week as well.
"We are qualified and we are very keen to qualify at the top of the pool and, at the same time, knowing the reality that regardless of where you finish in the pool, there is a game next week against a side that is incredibly capable."
Payne had been expected to return to the outside centre position after missing out on the Italy victory with a bruised foot but the Ulsterman is another who was held back with a last-eight tie in mind.
"It's a mix of the two," said Schmidt when asked whether Payne's absence was a selection or injury issue.
"We thought Keith played pretty well (in the centre) last week amidst a pretty flat effort and he played exceptionally well the last time he started in the Aviva.
"At the same time, Jared got through training on Wednesday and trained very well.
"But if we put him back into the game on Sunday it could aggravate the foot."
Had Payne been risked it was believed that Earls, despite his try-scoring form at this tournament, was set to miss out on the 23 altogether, instead that dubious distinction goes to his Munster team-mate Simon Zebo.
Having featured in the pool wins over Romania, Canada and Italy, Zebo finds himself out of the panel after Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney were tabbed for the wing positions and Luke Fitzgerald was selected to provide cover off the bench. It's another boost for Ulster's Bowe, the two-time Lion seemingly now firmly back in possession of the number 14 jersey after an indifferent spell of form in the run-up to the tournament saw him omitted for the opener.
"Tommy missed out on the first game against Canada and forced his way back in and was probably one of the better guys on the pitch last week," said Schmidt.
"Dave Kearney's consistently played well and I feel that there are some very narrow decisions. I'm not sure we get them all right, but we try to make them the best with next week in mind."
Schmidt said Fitzgerald's ability to cover the midfield in what is expected to be a physical encounter was another reason for his inclusion among the replacements.
"It's part of what I said about making sure that we do offer opportunity," he said.
"We have at the same time a balance of what we feel we need on any particular day.
"I think one of the reasons is that we believe the midfield is going to be quite attritional. We think that's going to be a really tough day at the office and Luke Fitzgerald covers that, as well as the back three, so his versatility is an asset for us there.
"He's also played really well for us, Luke. He played really well there against Canada in the first match, so that's the competitive nature of it. In the back three, there's a number of guys playing well."