New centre combo, dynamic bench and more Ireland team talking points

JOE SCHMIDT HAS named his Ireland side to face South Africa in Saturday’s first Test in Cape Town [KO 4pm Irish time].

View the team in full here.

Payne at 15

The Six Nations saw repeated calls for Schmidt to shift Jared Payne back to the 15 shirt but the Ireland head coach instead used Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo as his two fullbacks.

Payne shifts back from midfield. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Injury means Ireland are without that pair, however, and a huge number of Ireland supporters finally get what they want.

Schmidt stated that Robbie Henshaw was being considered in the 15 shirt this week, but despite having first burst through with Connacht in that position the bulk of his most recent rugby has been in midfield.

Tiernan O’Halloran – the replacement for Kearney in Ireland’s travelling squad – was also in consideration, though a Test debut in Newlands Stadium against the Boks would have been a big ask.

Payne has been impressive at 15 for Ulster this season after returning late from a foot injury suffered at the World Cup, with his vision, counter-attacking and distribution all standing out.

Indeed, fielding Payne at fullback provides Ireland with the fascinating prospect of having a well-placed second playmaker in phase play, the 30-year-old being excellent at inserting himself in as first receiver at the ideal time.

Aerially, Payne is composed and his defensive positioning and tackle efficacy are both strong too. Schmidt has been forced into this move but it will be fascinating to finally see the result.

Midfield combination

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One of the reasons Schmidt had previously indicated a reluctance to move Payne from 13 was the brilliance of his defence in the outside centre channel. Defending the edge of the frontline is notoriously demanding and now the responsibility lies with Henshaw.

Marshall has been in Ireland camp all season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The 22-year-old was superb at outside centre in the recent Guinness Pro12 final but this is a major step up. Never short of confidence, Henshaw will relish the huge test of his defensive capability.

On his inside shoulder off set-piece will be Ulster’s Luke Marshall, who is coming off an excellent season with his province, albeit that only three of his 20 starts came in the 12 shirt.

All six of Marshall’s six Ireland caps have come at inside centre, the last of them against Argentina in 2014. The 25-year-old was 24th man throughout Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this year, meaning he will be up to speed on their systems.

How Henshaw and Marshall combine, particularly in defence, will be crucial on Saturday. They were on the pitch at the same time for seven minutes or so in the November 2013 defeat to Australia but certainly there will be a certain lack of familiarity.

With a change at out-half in Paddy Jackson too, Ireland’s midfield combination is new and the Springboks will be eager Test it. At 24, 25 and 22, this Irish midfield trio are not veterans by any means but they bring an exciting energy to the mix.

Jordi at 7

One of the biggest calls for Schmidt this week was at openside flanker. Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier are missing through injury, while Tommy O’Donnell did not travel as he was unavailable for the third Test, which clashes with his wedding.

Murphy scored a try in the World Cup quarter-final. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Those absences mean Leinster man Jordi Murphy and Ulster’s Sean Reidy – who has actually been at number eight more recently – are the only members of the squad who have played extensively at openside flanker.

Schmidt may have been tempted to push Rhys Ruddock into the role – as he did in the November 2014 win over the Boks – or perhaps slot CJ Stander across to perform a more abrasive job in the seven shirt, but he instead opts for Murphy.

Having started the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, 25-year-old Murphy was omitted from this year’s Six Nations squad after a loss of form but he has shown up far more impressively in recent times.

Murphy will have a big task on his hands at the breakdown against the South African pair of Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen, who will be ably supported by Siya Kolisi.

Taking care of Ireland’s ball is not all on Murphy’s shoulders of course, but he will be asked to lead the charge in ensuring an exciting backline is given quick possession.

Dynamism off the bench

Schmidt’s bench selection is a dynamic one that looks capable of lifting the tempo of this contest in the final quarter.

Dillane will be asked to carry through the Boks. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sean Cronin ahead of Richardt Strauss is one clue in that direction, with the Leinster man’s pace and ball-carrying always exciting. Ultan Dillane, meanwhile, is an extremely mobile and explosive carrier.

Rhys Ruddock’s muscular power can impact too and he again offers bruising ability on the ball. Kieran Marmion, Ian Madigan and Craig Gilroy are all suited to an open game and thrive on a high tempo in attack.

While Madigan’s place-kicking may be important late on, Schmidt evidently feels Ireland can benefit from an injection of pace and mobility in the second half against a big South African pack.

Jackson’s time to shine

That Paddy Jackson hasn’t played Test rugby since coming off the bench against Romania in last year’s World Cup is clearly a worry for Ireland.

Jackson will be confident of stepping up. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Like Marshall, he has been involved throughout this season but Schmidt will naturally have an element of regret over not having given the Ulster out-half a taste of the Six Nations action.

The 24-year-old is now tasked with commanding the Irish game plan in some of the pressured circumstances of all.

That lack of Test exposure in recent times is a potential negative but there is a big possible upside with Jackson too. His playmaking for Ulster has been razor sharp all season, while he has continually proven himself to be a committed and impactful defender.

His pass selection and range can be a delight, while he crucially takes the ball to the defensive line before releasing to players around him.

His kicking from the tee has improved along with the rest of his game, although Cape Town on Saturday would be the best time to underline that. Out of hand, Jackson has developed a fine repertoire too.

Clearly, Jackson is not yet in the same bracket of class as Johnny Sexton but he will feel that his time to take control has arrived.

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