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Experience looks set to win out as Schmidt puts together jigsaw

 

Shake on it: Rob Kearney is replaced by Jordan Larmour during Ireland’s clash with New Zealand last year
Shake on it: Rob Kearney is replaced by Jordan Larmour during Ireland’s clash with New Zealand last year

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is hard not to think of this as a culmination of Joe Schmidt's tenure with Ireland, even though the prize for winning Saturday's quarter-final contest is the extension of his time in charge by two weeks.

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Everything he has done in the last four years has built to this point. All the big decisions, countless training and analysis sessions have contributed to this moment. Now that he's here, Schmidt looks like having one of the most straightforward selection meetings of his time at the helm.

Essentially, 13 of the starting spots are locked in and the other two are more than likely sewn up as well, unless he comes up with a bit of a surprise.

The tight-five picks itself, the half-backs are about to break the Irish appearance record for a partnership and Bundee Aki's suspension has made the centre pairing very straightforward.

Wingers Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale are almost certain to start, while Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander are near dead certs for the No.7 and No.8 shirts.

The big questions for Schmidt centre around whether to retain Jordan Larmour in the No.15 jersey and whether he recalls Peter O'Mahony at No.6.

Full-back is probably the biggest call of all, given the young Leinster star's performance against Samoa last weekend and Scotland on opening night.

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Statistically, Larmour is Ireland's most dangerous attacker at this tournament. He has beaten 16 defenders in 209 minutes of action, six ahead of the next best in Garry Ringrose.

Rob Kearney could rightly counter that he has scored two tries and looked sharp as a tack in his matches to date.

The 33-year-old has been a loyal servant to the Schmidt regime and has reserved his best performances for the matches against New Zealand.

The call will come down to whether Larmour's attacking excellence is worth the risk of losing the security of Kearney in the back-field.

Against a team with arguably the best tactical kicking game in the world, it would be a huge gamble to exclude perhaps the most intelligent full-back around.

Much will depend on the state of Kearney's groin. He tweaked the muscle in the win over Russia, having earlier missed the opening match with a calf strain.

Larmour has thrived in his absence, but even as he praised the 22-year-old for his starring role in Saturday's win over Samoa, the coach veered towards his strengths in the No.23 jersey as he lauded his versatility.

He is the full-back of Ireland's future, but it looks like Kearney will be in situ as he has been through most of Schmidt's great games.

So too has O'Mahony, the other member of Schmidt's top brass under pressure for his place.

The Munster captain has not yet hit the heights of old on this trip, but he can draw on the performance against New Zealand in November last year as a reference point to how well he can play when he's on song.

The alternative selection would be to pick Rhys Ruddock and spring O'Mahony from the bench. Tadhg Beirne is another option, but he's likely to be handed the No.19 shirt.

He did a good job there against Samoa and with Rory Best unlikely to play 80 minutes, Schmidt may feel there's value in having a senior leader in the cavalry, given how the team lost their way against Japan.

Ruddock's exclusion from the match-day 23 against Samoa was a curious one. He was Ireland's best player against Russia, impressed as a replacement in the defeat to Japan, and he'll be fresh.

He looks in great physical condition and is a dominant athlete who can win big collisions, something that has been missing from Ireland's game in 2019, however he hasn't got the big selection nods in the last couple of seasons.

While Schmidt has thrown the odd selection curveball - and knows he needs to surprise the All Blacks with something - he is also fiercely loyal to his cadre of leadership figures who have been with him all along. Form, however, is an essential ingredient.

Forwards coach Simon Easterby said: "A World Cup is a lot about form. Very quickly it starts and very quickly it can be over. We have to look at it and balance selection experience but also form at the time. It's a short window to get things right and if you don't, you can be on the way home."

Given that conundrum, experience is likely to win the day.

Head to head

How Ireland's full-backs have measured up at the World Cup

RWC games J Larmour R Kearney

Starts 4 (2) 2 (2)

Minutes 209 119

Tries12

Possessions 51 12

Kick (%)16 27

Pass (%) 16 15

Run (%) 68 58

Clean breaks 6 5

Defenders beaten 16 1

Offloads 1 1

Metres per carry 5.47m 7.43m

Handling errors 3 0

Tackle success (%) 86 75

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