Schmidt admits sense of 'unknown' to Ireland selection

By Brendan O’Brien

Joe Schmidt admits that there is a sense of the “unknown” about his Ireland team as they face up to the Welsh challenge in Dublin on Saturday.

The Ireland coach has made five changes from the side that overwhelmed Italy a fortnight ago, three of them enforced by the accumulating injury list that had already made him plan without the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier.

Head coach Joe Schmidt speaking during an Ireland press conference at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.

Andrew Porter will earn just a fifth cap and a first Six Nations start at tighthead in light of Tadhg Furlong’s hamstring injury. Furlong’s recovery had been progressing well but Schmidt said on Thursday that his progress had “just stalled a little bit”.

James Ryan features in the second row instead of Iain Henderson who, the coach said, could “definitely play next weekend” while Chris Farrell is another to bag a first Six Nations start as he replaces long-term injury absentee Robbie Henshaw in the midfield.

Ryan and Farrell hold seven caps between them.

Cian Healy for Jack McGrath at loosehead and CJ Stander for Jack Conan at No.8 are the other alterations. Ireland’s XV will actually boast more caps collectively than Wales - 604 against 553 - but there is still an inexperienced air to the selection.

Six of the side are yet to break into double figures in terms of appearances although Schmidt pointed out that he had been preparing some of them for this very eventuality for some time now.

Farrell, for instance, may be a Munster player these days but Schmidt spoke about how he has worked on the centre he termed as a “long-term project” whilst he was still lining out for Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble in the Top 14.

Chris Farrell during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.

“I’ve been speaking to Chris for three or four years. He’s been a long-term project. I thought he did really well against Argentina in only his second test [in November]. But, yep, we are short on experience,” Schmidt added.

“But if you want to be tested what better environment than the white-hot atmosphere at the Aviva? The unknown is always a fear for pretty much any human being and there is a little bit about the unknown going into this weekend.”

The Six Nations is no environment to conduct experiments.

Andrew Porter during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.

Schmidt has said as much time and again since taking charge of the national side and yet Porter will pack down at tighthead barely a year after making the switch across from loosehead even if the 76 minutes banked as a replacement last time out will help.

“Andrew acquitted himself well against Italy,” said Schmidt, “but I know it is not the same level. Rob Evans is a tricky customer. The angles and stepping around – all that will be good learning experiences for Andrew. And they all have to learn somewhere.”

Cian Healy has no worries for Porter, labelling him a “freak show” at the team announcement.

Head coach Joe Schmidt during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile.

For Ireland to overcome a dangerous Welsh side this weekend they will likely have to learn more ways and means of crossing their try line. Wales haven’t lost to Ireland in this tournament since 2014 and have conceded only two tries in the last four meetings.

Schmidt has always contested the view that his Irish side is less than cutting edge in attack but it has been a hard sell given stats that show they have managed just six tries in their last 12 meetings with England, Wales and France in the Six Nations.

“Do we play slightly differently from how we did two years ago?” he asked. “I think anyone who does analysis would say ‘yes we do’. There are some changes in what we do. I am obviously not going to explain them. That’s you guys’ challenge, I guess.”

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