Andy Ward: Schmidt right to pair Payne & Henshaw as Irish centres

By Andy WardBBC Sport NI pundit and ex-Irish international
Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne
Jonathan Sexton talks formations with Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne in Ireland training on Thursday
Autumn international: Ireland v South Africa
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday, 8 November 2014 Kick-off: 17:30 GMT
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, Radio Ulster and BBC Sport website

When word emerged early in the week that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was considering putting Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw together at centre against South Africa, it led to a few raised eyebrows.

The naysayers reckoned that bad enough going into battle against the mighty Springboks minus the retired Brian O'Driscoll, omitting his long-time partner Gordon D'Arcy would represent pure folly.

But I respectfully have to disagree.

With the great BOD gone, the timing is right to try a new midfield combination.

The attention that opposition teams focused on one of the greatest players ever to have picked up a rugby ball helped give 79-times capped D'Arcy the space to show his array of skills on numerous occasions.

But time waits for no man or woman and while Schmidt said on Thursday that D'Arcy will see action over the next couple of weeks, the coach simply has to look at alternative centre options with the World Cup looming in less than 12 months.

Ireland's autumn internationals
South AfricaSaturday, 8 November
GeorgiaSunday, 16 November
AustraliaSaturday, 22 November
All fixtures at Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Granted, Payne's best performances for Ulster have been in the number 15 shirt but the only way we are going to find out whether he is capable of filling O'Driscoll's boots is to pitch him into the midfield action.

On the face of it, Payne looks to have many of the necessary skills to undertake the role.

His ability to create space from himself is his greatest attacking attribute as he glides past unsuspecting opponents although facing the Springboks defence will be a significant step up from the Pro12.

Of course, replacing the iconic O'Driscoll will heap the pressure on the New Zealand-born Irish debutant but I don't expect him to play in an inhibited way and in fact will be surprised if he doesn't attempt the unexpected on occasions in Saturday's opening autumn Test.

I am also really looking forward to seeing Henshaw really arrive in the big time after earning three caps over the last two summers.

The Connacht lad is a really strong boy who loves the big hit and will relish the midfield battle with Jan Serfontein and South African skipper Jean de Villiers.

South Africa lock Victor Matfield
Andy Ward says Victor Matfield's return has boosted the Springboks pack

The centre calls apart, the plethora of injuries in the squad meant that the Irish team pretty much picked itself and I must confess my heart sank somewhat when I heard on Wednesday that Rory Best had been ruled out.

Best's axis with the redoubtable Paul O'Connell is so important to the Irish line-out and while Sean Cronin brings a lot to the table in terms of his strong running, I would be a little bit concerned that the absence of the Ulster skipper will affect Ireland's set-piece as well as the breakdown exchanges.

In terms of the South Africans, they are viewing this tour as a dry-run for their World Cup campaign which will start in 10 months time and come into the game in buoyant mood after ending New Zealand's two-year unbeaten run five weeks ago.

The strength of the Springboks is emphasised by the fact that Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger and JP Pietersen are only on the bench while experienced fly-half Morne Steyn doesn't even make the 23.

I won't envy the Irish pack in the second half when they will seek the likes of Botha and Burger bounding onto the Aviva Stadium turf.

South Africa's tour matches
IrelandSaturday, 8 November, Aviva Stadium
EnglandSaturday, 15 November, Twickenham
ItalySaturday, 22 November, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
WalesSaturday, 29 November, Millennium Stadium

Victor Matfield's return to the South African pack at the age of 37 has been a boon for coach Heyneke Meyer in recent matches and his battle with the evergreen O'Connell could be one of the stand-out features of the match.

Behind the scrum, I have not been surprised to see young fly-half Handre Pollard make the kind of impact he has produced in recent matches after seeing him star at a couple of Junior World Cups in recent years.

The sheer power and explosiveness in the Springboks ranks has to make them strong favourites to win Saturday's game.

I expect Ireland to put up a decent and combative show for most of the contest and I especially hope that new boys Payne and Henshaw acquit themselves well.

But a win of the order of 10 to 15 points looks to be on the cards for the Springboks although I have been wrong with many predictions.