Battle for O'Brien jersey set to heat up
Henry in pole position as Schmidt names preliminary panel for opening Six Nations clash with Scotland
THERE are just 18 days to go until Ireland kick off their Six Nations campaign at home to Scotland and yesterday's extended squad announcement brought the Championship into sharp focus.
November's defeat to New Zealand has loomed large since Ryan Crotty broke Irish hearts in the dramatic end-game and, while the provinces have carried the flag regardless, there is a real sense of unfinished business this spring.
This weekend's Heineken Cup action will help Joe Schmidt continue the process of filtering his 44-man squad, while the Wolfhounds' meeting with England Saxons on Saturday week will further help with that process.
Although the coach named such a large extended squad for his first Six Nations engagement, there was still plenty to digest when the names were announced.
In total, between the new faces, expected selections, surprise calls, uncapped players and the short and long-term injured there were 55 names included in the email that landed at 4.0 yesterday afternoon.
The first thing that commanded the readers' attention was the seven asterisks to denote new caps, before a quick scan of the 44 players showed up some notable absentees including Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan and, perhaps most surprisingly, Tommy Bowe.
Their names were included in the group of seven players whose injury problems mean they won't link up with the squad when they assemble next week, presumably ruling them out of the Wolfhounds game and probably the opening act against Scotland eight days later.
With a number of senior players set to see game time in that pre-Championship clash in an attempt to get them fit, it seems strange that Zebo in particular doesn't make the cut given his return to the playing field in Gloucester for Munster last Saturday.
The trio, as well as Richardt Strauss, Roger Wilson, Craig Gilroy and Declan Fitzpatrick, are all considered not yet ready for the squad, but the press release was clear in not ruling them out for the duration of the tournament.
A further quartet of Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris, Mike Sherry and Stuart Olding were not considered due to injury.
Members of the November Internationals squad Donncha O'Callaghan and James Coughlan miss out to Iain Henderson and Robin Copeland, while Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy will battle Chris Henry for the No 7 jersey left vacant by Sean O'Brien's injury.
While the real selection points will be revealed in two weeks' time when the squad is trimmed to 23 to face Scotland, there was still plenty to reflect on from yesterday's announcement.
1) STRIKING A BALANCE WITH THE INJURED AND UNDERCOOKED
Although O'Brien's injury robbed Schmidt of possibly his most important player, there is a raft of players who appear to be returning from injury at just the right time.
The Wolfhounds game on Saturday week appeared to be a perfect opportunity to reintegrate Zebo, Gilroy, Ryan and Bowe into the squad, but they are among the seven players left out of the squad to recuperate with their provinces.
With no Pro12 action until the weekend of Ireland's second Six Nations clash against Wales in week two, it seems safe to assume that those players will miss the first tranche of games.
Gilroy and Zebo are left out despite returning to action in recent weeks, but Fergus McFadden is included as he prepares to come back from the arm he broke against Australia, while Rory Best and Cian Healy came back last weekend and Chris Henry and Henderson all returned from long-term injuries a week previously.
Of course, each player recuperates differently and there would be a danger in including too many undercooked players. There are also a number of in-form wingers vying for places, with Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald all turning in big displays in recent weeks.
2) TURNING WOLFHOUNDS INTO THOROUGHBREDS
Anthony Foley's side for Saturday week's Kingsholm clash is likely to include a number of those senior players needing game time, with Best, Cian Healy and McFadden among those who could feature, but it could also possess some less heralded or experienced players ready to make an impact.
Scrum-half Kieran Marmion and Munster-bound No 8 Copeland are two newcomers who will hope to carry their impressive Heineken Cup performances into that game if given the chance, while Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock and Rodney Ah You are others who will hope to put their hands up for selections with big performances.
3) EXILES IN CHIEF
With so many names included in the communique, there weren't many players who went without some solace -- but there some notable absentees.
Perhaps it is the fact that next year's World Cup is starting to come into focus, but there is a youthful look to many of the selections and some of the more experienced players have missed out.
Kevin McLaughlin has had very few games to press his case since featuring in November and, having lost his place to Ruddock at Leinster in recent months, he appears to have been usurped by his provincial colleague again this month.
Coughlan and O'Callaghan were involved throughout the November internationals, but miss the cut now, while Shane Jennings was also involved during the autumn, but misses out on the battle for the No 7 jersey to Henry, O'Donnell and Murphy.
Tom Court is another name missing as Dave Kilcoyne returns to the fold, while James Hart, Niall Morris and James Cronin could also count themselves as unlucky to miss out.
4) KEEPING MOMENTUM GOING
O'Brien and Bowe aside, Schmidt is able to name 13 of the team that started on that fateful November afternoon against New Zealand.
While losing a pair of Lions is far from ideal, there is some solace to be taken from the strength of having a fully fit Jonathan Sexton in harness and Brian O'Driscoll has far more game time under his belt.
Having addressed the mental side of the dramatic endgame of that harrowing defeat at the pre-Christmas camp, the coaching staff will be looking to channel the performance that saw them come so close to history, in the Championship.
Ireland will be trying to kick on and banish that memory with a strong performance and having the core of that team intact will be of benefit.
5) REPLACING SEAN O'BRIEN
Henry is effectively the incumbent after starting in place of O'Brien against Samoa, but both O'Donnell and Murphy will push the Ulster player hard.
O'Donnell is the closest like-for-like fill-in for the Tullow Tank as he combines dynamic carrying with his ground game. Murphy's recent form provides another compelling case for inclusion.
All three should get an opportunity to audition in the Heineken Cup games this weekend before joining up in camp, while they all could conceivably be in contention for the Wolfhounds game, since O'Donnell and Henry are just back from injury. It appears to be the position most up for grabs for the February 2 kick-off against Scotland.
Possible Wolfhounds team to face England Saxons on Jan 25: F Jones; F McFadden, R Henshaw, L Marshall, A Trimble; P Jackson, K Marmion; D C Healy, R Best, R Ah You; D Tuohy, I Henderson; R Ruddock, T O'Donnell, R Copeland.
Possible Ireland team for Six Nations opener v Scotland: R Kearney; K Earls, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.