Freak. There’s no other word to describe Jamie Heaslip in relation to his healing abilities. We won’t complain, but many others would be out of their desk job for six months but here he is, the sole change from the team that beat England two weeks ago, ready to take the field in the Cardiff cauldron. Schmidt has made only enforced changes this Six Nations when you might think variety and choice are crucial in winning a championship – conservatism or wisdom?
Seeing as it’s “In Joe We Trust” you’d have to say it’s wisdom. Unlike coaches past, Ireland are fielding an essentially unchanged XV for the fourth time not because there’s no other options but because the players today are at a point of strength and skill that they can play at their best, week in week out. Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney, Cian Healy and Tommy O’Donnell are absolutely smashing at the door to gain a place in the starting XV but none of their counterparts could possibly be faulted so far and so all retain their place. Had Italy and Scotland not been scheduled to bookend the tournament we may have seen changes but as it stands it is the right call.
Warren Gatland on the other hand has gone unchanged when maybe he shouldn’t have. Dropping Alex Cuthbert for the France game seemed a little much given that he can certainly be relied on for bench impact at the very least. Liam Williams is a talented player and hasn’t done much if anything wrong thus far, but his appearances haven’t seen him be the ray of hope either. Cuthbert pales in comparison to his wingmate George North a lot of the time but if this is to be the game that Schmidt finally unleashes the back line in then Cuthbert would be a defensive preference out wide. Where it is unanimously agreed that Gatland has an ace up his sleeve however is in the centre. Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies carry more top level experience between them than any of three center partnerships that Ireland’s midfield have faced so far and that “real test” of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne will most certainly come this weekend.
Whether that confrontation behind the pack will be telling at the end of the day relies on the game plan of course. Three games in and the number one priority has been to kick, but you feel that simply won’t work with Wales. Between the aerial abilities of George North and especially Leigh Halfpenny, as well as the latters excellent running game, Ireland will need a slightly altered route to victory. Not entirely difficult when a kicker as good at Sexton also happens to be electric with ball in hand too though, it’s just whether or not that type of play will be part of the plan is the most crucial point. Schmidt could keep faith in the kicking game that has paid off so far and it may keep ticking over, but allowing any Welsh side a chance of a counterattack is a dangerous game. That being said, trying to play loose and fluid against them could be disastrous. It really does seem like the England hype made us all forget what a threat these guys can be. The only certainty is that it’ll be bloody close.
Image courtesy of fulltwist.ie