Sunday 22 October 2017

Simon Zebo left kicking his heels in frustration as lack of game time proves his undoing

Munster's Simon Zebo in squad training
Munster's Simon Zebo in squad training
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A Year after he lit up the Six Nations with a scintillating opening weekend performance in Cardiff, Simon Zebo will be watching on from afar as Ireland begin their 2014 campaign on Sunday.

There were few surprises in Joe Schmidt's 34-man squad to face Scotland and Wales in the opening two games, but even though it was well flagged in advance, the absence of Munster's Lion still raises eyebrows.

The 23-year-old has yet to start a game since returning from a foot injury in November, but in each of the three appearances he has made off the bench since his comeback, he has brimmed with threat and confidence.

Schmidt opined last weekend that he feels the Corkman is short of match fitness after his lay-off, but opted to give Craig Gilroy – also on the comeback trail – the starting berth for the Wolfhounds against England Saxons on Saturday.

Instead, it was the Ulster flier who looked the rustier of those returning, with Fergus McFadden hitting the ground running and Zebo looking sharp during his 30-minute cameo.

It wasn't enough to force his way in as Schmidt has gone for his provincial team-mate Felix Jones to cover at full-back, while Luke Fitzgerald, McFadden, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney will battle it out for the wing slots in the absence of Zebo, Gilroy and the injured Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls.

Zebo will kick his heels this weekend, but he will get another opportunity to impress on Saturday week when Munster host the Cardiff Blues on the evening after the Wales game.

The panel named was two more than most expected, with Schmidt naming eight back-rows in his squad, including the impressive Wolfhounds quintet of Robin Copeland, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O'Donnell, Iain Henderson and Rhys Ruddock.

That makes Henderson more likely to move to the second-row where he played at U-20 level and did well in Gloucester.

The youngster looks a perfect bench option given his versatility, while the battle to cover the back-row positions looks intriguing, with Chris Henry still the favourite to pack down alongside Peter O'Mahony and Jamie Heaslip.

The six-day turnaround between Scotland and Wales will come into Schmidt's thinking as he ponders selection as training gets under way this morning.

Copeland's ball-carrying prowess makes him a potential impact sub, but Heaslip's durability may work against the Cardiff man. Ruddock's ability to cover all three back-row spots will work in his favour, while Murphy and O'Donnell can both cause problems with ball in hand off the bench if Henry gets the nod.

Martin Moore looks almost certain to make his debut over the next fortnight after getting the nod over Stephen Archer and Rodney Ah You, with Mike Ross the only other tighthead prop in the squad, while Jack McGrath is picked ahead of Dave Kilcoyne.

Isaac Boss is another big loser after his commanding, try-scoring display against the Saxons and will surely feature later in the tournament, while Damien Varley, Rob Herring and Richardt Strauss don't make the cut, leaving Rory Best and Sean Cronin to battle it out for the No 2 jersey.

But it is the back-three and back-row positions that will prove the biggest talking points ahead of Friday's team announcement and the inclusion of so many options in the back-row in particular means competition will be fierce in training this week.

THE IRISH SQUAD

IRELAND squad for Six Nations games v Scotland and Wales

FORWARDS

R Best (Ulster), R Copeland (Cardiff Blues), S Cronin (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), C Henry (Ulster), M McCarthy (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster), P O'Connell (capt, Munster), T O'Donnell (Munster), M Moore (Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster), M Ross (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), D Tuohy (Ulster)

BACKS

D Cave (Ulster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster), R Henshaw (Connacht), P Jackson (Ulster), F Jones (Munster), D Kearney (Leinster), R Kearney (Leinster), I Madigan (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), J Sexton (Racing Metro 92), A Trimble (Ulster)

Irish Independent

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