Reaction: Schmidt backs Cronin to shine on long-awaited first Championship start

Ireland’s team to face Italy was unveiled on Friday afternoon by Joe Schmidt and there was undoubtedly one stand-out storyline.

Ireland’s team to face Italy was unveiled on Friday afternoon by Joe Schmidt and there was undoubtedly one stand-out storyline.

Sean Cronin, all being well between now and Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico, will make his first-ever Guinness Six Nations start.

A remarkable achievement considering the hooker is 32 years old and has won 67 caps for his country.

After 32 appearances off the bench in the Championship, the Leinster man gets his chance from the start this weekend.

And Schmidt cannot wait to see what his hooker can offer him after a cameo off the bench against England in Dublin in round one.

“It’s not like he doesn’t know we’ve got faith in him,” said Schmidt who named Cronin to start their third Test in Australia last summer before injury deprived him of the chance.

“I’m sure he’s excited. He’s trained well. Hopefully that gives him the confidence to step out and do a really good job.

“He’ll have the confidence from the ten starts he has had in different fixtures, but the amount of times he’s come off the bench and been involved in really important wins for us, I think, why not bring that from the start?

“It’s a great opportunity for Sean and I’m hopeful he’ll grab it with both hands.”

Cronin’s promotion to the starting XV is not the only alteration in the pack this weekend.

Schmidt has given others a chance as well, with Dave Kilcoyne and Ultan Dillane both handed starting opportunities at loosehead and lock respectively.

“Across the board those guys have earned their reward and it does give us the chance to give some of the guys a weekend off,” added Schmidt.

“The guys like Rory (Best) and James (Ryan), Cian (Healy), they have played the most game minutes so far.”

Also in the pack, Jack Conan’s injury means Jordi Murphy gets the nod at No.8 either side of captain Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien in the back row.

“There has been a lot of energy, we trained really well last Friday in the open session,” Schmidt added.

“The energy was visible but the challenge with that enthusiasm is to combine it with the accuracy required.

“It will be a challenge to do that, considering the number of changes we have made.”

Elsewhere, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray will start for the first 50th time together for Ireland in the half-backs.

Injury to Joey Carbery means Jack Carty will also make his debut if introduced off the bench in the second half.

The changes in the pack are contrasted by Schmidt naming the same backline that started in Edinburgh last time out.

“We would have started Johnny (Sexton) anyway even if Joey Carbery wasn’t injured. Johnny has had one game and 23 minutes since the Munster game.

“He has had very little game time whereas Joey has been very resilient and had a lot of game time, including at Edinburgh last week.

“Jack (Carty) is impossible to ruffle. We have tried to put some pressure on him at training. It hasn’t all been seamless and perfect but if it does go wrong he gets it next time, his ability to slot in has been great.

“Robbie Henshaw has not had a huge amount of volume before England. But Rob (Kearney) gave a lot of confidence to the players around him in Edinburgh. And we want to keep him going, he hasn’t had much rugby.

“Robbie is a known quantiy for us, we know his quality and will have hesitation slotting him in against France in whatever position.

“Bundee (Aki) has been sharp this week, Chris Farrell on very little preparation needs minutes and did really well in Edinburgh. This is exactly what we want.”

And Schmidt also was not underestimating the threat of Conor O’Shea’s Italy who beat the men in green in Rome as recently as 2013.

“I have no doubt they will unsettle us a bit at time, (Jimmy) Tuivati, (Maxime) Mbandà and (Braam) Steyn will challenge us physically in the back row and they have some great guys in the backs,” he said.

“Luca Morisi was unbelievably good for Italy before his injury, and is just getting back to that now.

“Michele Campagnaro, Angelo Esposito, they will be a great challenge for us and the team are looking forward to it and hopefully we can deliver a real confidence-building performance.”