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Six Nations Rugby: Joe Schmidt in Ireland selection dilemma

By Tony Ward

For the first time in this Championship, Joe Schmidt has some serious decisions to make ahead of Ireland's clash with Scotland.

If it's true what they say about teams learning more in defeat than victory then the master of improvisation and reconstruction will have a plan for Edinburgh that embraces measured change.

Root and branch surgery will not be required. With a seven-day turnaround, it won't happen anyway but in balancing the needs of a Championship still there to be won against a World Cup fast approaching, there is a call to be made .

Does Schmidt leave well enough alone on the basis of one blip in four, or does he measure the inadequacies in Cardiff and factor in changes that will give game time under pressure to other players in what is undoubtedly an ever-extending squad?

A case could be made for seven, possibly eight, changes post-Cardiff. Apart from an extraordinary performance from skipper Paul O'Connell, not too many in green came away with their reputations enhanced.

But on the basis that a developing team didn't become great on the back of beating the English and French, that same still-developing team hasn't become a bad one following defeat to Wales.

We just didn't play well in Cardiff. We started slowly, we lost the battle in the air, we struggled at the lineout yet dominated possession and territory in almost two-to-one in percentages.

Therein lies the problem. We lack the wherewithal of the top rugby nations of being able to turn possession into points and meaningful line-breaks into tries. It is a major concern and Joe knows it.

The new centre combination has bridged the Brian O'Driscoll-Gordon D'Arcy void much more pragmatically than any of us would have expected. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are two very talented footballers but as an attacking combination they have much to prove.

Henshaw is a natural and here to stay, whether wearing 12 or 13. With Payne the case for outside centre is still unproven. When he plays in the last line for Ulster, I see a much more efficient and much more effective team.

But what is the alternative? With a short turn-around to face the Scots at Murrayfield, time just doesn't allow an alteration in the middle.

So on the basis of picking a team to challenge for the championship yet still build meaningfully towards Webb Ellis 2015, what changes could or should the main man make for Murrayfield?

He could, for starters, throw in the replacement front-row en bloc but here he must measure the 80 minutes by way of all six. Rory Best and Mike Ross, with respect to two very seasoned performers, are long past replacement impact.

Sean Cronin is worth a run from the start as is Marty Moore but in the search for balance plus game time, I'd give Cian Healy the nod as he needs the time more than Jack McGrath.

In the second-row, the same could be said for Devin Toner ahead of Iain Henderson but Henderson is now demanding selection from the start. I suspect it will be Toner but here I would go with my gut and start Henderson.

Beyond that, I would leave Conor Murray in situ despite another Eoin Reddan tour de force after his arrival on 60 minutes.

And if Jonny Sexton is carrying any sort of twinge then the case for rest in Edinburgh is obvious. Ian Madigan was outstanding in his lone start against Georgia for Ireland back in November.

I would leave the midfield combination in place, although I would like to see Madigan at 12 with Henshaw wearing 13 at some stage during the summer.

So on the basis of minimal time between matches and a Six Nations title still on the line in Edinburgh, plus rest for key man Sexton, my starting team to face Scotland sees just three changes from the defeat to Wales.

Belfast Telegraph


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