Healy unleashed and more talking points from Ireland’s team for Scotland

JOE SCHMIDT HAS made two changes to his Ireland team to face Scotland on Saturday in the final round of the Six Nations.

See the Ireland team and replacements here.

Healy unleashed

‘Church’ is back in Ireland’s number one shirt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After three appearances off the bench in this championship, Cian Healy is finally unleashed into the first team at the expense of Jack McGrath. The St. Mary’s man will see himself as unfortunate after a strong championship, but Healy may just add some of the crucial elements Ireland have been missing.

One of Ireland’s struggles in this Six Nations has been making consistent gainline progress with ball in hand, but the return of Healy to the starting team should certainly aid in bettering that area.

His explosive nature in the tackle is useful too, while it should be remembered how excellent Healy was at scrum time in last year’s Six Nations. His demolition of Aaron Jarvis in the final scrum last weekend was an example of his destructiveness there.

While he is obviously lacking a body of games behind him this season due to the long-term hamstring injury, which is a concern in terms of his performance levels, Ireland have one of a handful of world-class players back in the XV.

Zebo misses out

Zebo training with Ireland earlier today. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

After nine games in a row for Ireland, Simon Zebo misses out on selection for a potential Six Nations decider. The 25-year-old can count himself unlucky, though you sense that Schmidt has long planned to bring Luke Fitzgerald into his team.

It’s true that Zebo was not at his best in Cardiff last weekend, but then neither were the vast majority of his teammates. His was not a performance that cried out about a player badly out of form.

The Munster man performed wonderfully well in the win over England in round three, having also been impressively solid against France and England.

There’s little room for sentimentality in international rugby however, and Schmidt has made a decisive move to bring Fitzgerald in despite his relative lack of game time recently.

The team

O’Brien joins Heaslip and O’Mahony in the back row. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Jump back in time to 2013 and Joe Schmidt’s first months in charge of Ireland. Get into his head and attempt to conjure up the very best Ireland XV you can, ignoring injuries and form.

Is this the side Schmidt might have imagined?

The dream team back row of O’Brien, Heaslip and O’Mahony; the experienced front row of Healy, Best and Ross; the complementary lock pairing of O’Connell and Toner. Sexton and Murray at halfback; a back three of Bowe, Kearney and Fitzgerald.

Perhaps Schmidt didn’t know how his centre pairing would pan out at that stage in 2013, but it’s not difficult to argue that the other 13 players above would have been at the forefront of Schmidt’s mind.

Clearly, the likes of O’Brien, Healy and Heaslip have had injury issues, though this looks something like the XV Schmidt might have picked out as his ideal one at the very beginning.

Bench consistency

Henderson’s impact off the bench may be vital again. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Aside from Healy and McGrath swapping places, the Ireland bench is unchanged for this weekend, the likes of Sean Cronin and Iain Henderson held back again despite impressing in the second half against Wales.

Both those explosive ball carriers have real value as replacements, adding so much dynamism in the later stages of games. If Ireland’s formula is to grind Scotland down for 60 minutes before attempting to cut loose, then Cronin and Henderson will be vital.

Ian Madigan and Eoin Reddan can similarly add quality when the tempo is raised in the final quarter, both being ideally suited to quick, incisive, ambitious ball-in-hand rugby.

Felix Jones hasn’t had the opportunity to show much in his limited stints on the pitch during this championship, but the Munster fullback would surely relish a more extended chance in Murrayfield.

Lukey Fitz

Luke Fitz is back in Ireland’s 11 jersey. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Whatever about the disappointment for Simon Zebo, there will have been elation in the Fitzgerald household as Luke returns to the Ireland match day squad for the first time since November 2013. This will be his first Ireland start since 2011.

With 27 Ireland caps, a Grand Slam and a Lions tour under his belt, Fitzgerald is far from a rookie on this stage, even if he has not featured in international rugby for some time. His mindset and mental skills are world-class, meaning it should be no issue re-adapting to the demands of the Six Nations.

The former Blackrock College man possesses superb footwork and his reading of the game also allows him to pop up off his wing in phase play as appropriate. Equally as important is his defence, where he marries intelligent reads with good contact in the tackle.

Fitzgerald remains one of the most exciting backs in Irish rugby, and while some will point to a poor try-scoring record at international level, his involvement in Scotland should help as Schmidt’s side look for a big winning margin.

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