Wednesday 28 June 2017

Here are the selection dilemmas top of the agenda for Joe Schmidt ahead of France clash

Returning stars and Kearney injury give Schmidt plenty to ponder in Monaghan

Craig Gilroy. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A reduced Ireland squad enter uncharted territory tomorrow as they assemble in Monaghan to begin plotting for their France.

They got the show back on the road in Rome, but nobody will be getting carried away with their 63-10 win over Italy, and nestled deep in GAA territory they will craft the plan to overcome Guy Noves' men at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday week.

Unlike all of their rivals, Ireland will not announce who will be in camp, but it is expected that around 21 players will join the coaches for the three-day get-together.

As Ronan O'Gara alluded to on RTE on Sunday, the sessions will be furiously competitive as the returning players look to catch the coach's eye.

On Friday, they will issue a squad update as they open training to the public, and it is expected that they will confirm that Rob Kearney is out of the France game and probably the remaining games of the Championship.

The loss of the full-back is a blow, but elsewhere Joe Schmidt will be dealing with a much stronger hand.

His injury prognoses should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but he said that Andrew Trimble, Peter O'Mahony and Johnny Sexton would "definitely" be fit for France, so if we take him at his word there will be a bite to training at Monaghan RFC as players look to impress.

In November, the decision to leave O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien out of the squad for the game against New Zealand in Chicago sent a message to the squad.

Around 20 squad members have been released back to their provinces to play Pro12 rugby this weekend, with O'Mahony among those who trained with Munster yesterday and Josh van der Flier on the pitch for Leinster.

In almost every unit, there is some debate about selection and plenty for Schmidt to ponder.

Back three

With Kearney set to be ruled out, it looks likely that the returning Trimble will come on to the right wing with Keith Earls shifting to the left and Simon Zebo moving to full-back.

Craig Gilroy made an impression with a hat-trick off the bench last weekend, but was firmly put back in his box by Schmidt and there's no guarantee that the Ulster flier will be back among the replacements next week.

Schmidt will have noted Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden's returns to action for Leinster at the weekend and both could come under consideration if they come through Friday's game against Edinburgh unscathed.

Centres

The news on Robbie Henshaw is more positive and he should be over his dead leg in time to train alongside Garry Ringrose this week.

Their growing partnership is expected to continue as long as they remain fit, although Stuart Olding's return to action for Ulster at the weekend is timely and if he gets through this weekend's game against Glasgow Warriors, he could be in with a shout.

Olding was superb in the third Test against South Africa last June, but has struggled with injury this season.

When fit, he would appear to be higher up the pecking order than his clubmates Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall - although Marshall was brought to Rome as cover.

Half-backs

Schmidt said he had no opinion on whether it would be tough to replace Paddy Jackson with the returning Johnny Sexton on Saturday, but the change at out-half appears inevitable if the Leinster man is fit.

When available, Sexton remains the first name on the team-sheet, and his presence would lift standards for the three difficult games remaining.

Schmidt will be happy that Jackson has banked 160 minutes of Test rugby and there's no doubt he'll still have a part to play off the bench as Sexton finds his feet after an interrupted season.

Beside him, Conor Murray remains untouchable.

Front-row

During the World Cup, Schmidt rotated Cian Healy and Jack McGrath and it looks like the pair of looseheads are to be managed similarly during the Six Nations.

Healy was excellent when given a start on Saturday and may have just edged his nose in front of his Leinster team-mate, who replaced him for the final half an hour.

Both will play a role in the coming weeks, but Healy has stolen a march in the race for the No 1 jersey.

Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong remain secure, while Munster pair Niall Scannell and John Ryan are safe enough on the bench in their first campaign.

Second-row

Iain Henderson was a surprise exclusion from the 23 who played in Rome. He didn't travel as a reserve and he wasn't released to play with Ulster either.

So, the dynamic ball-carrier has a battle on his hands to dis-lodge Donnacha Ryan from the starting XV and Ultan Dillane from the bench.

Henderson would be a tempting option to partner Devin Toner given his ability with ball in hand, but Ireland's pack looked a tighter unit with Ryan back in the engine room.

Dillane looked back to his best and should get some valuable game-time for Connacht this week, so Henderson has a battle on his hands.

Back-row

The return of Peter O'Mahony makes this a particularly competitive area, but news that the Munster captain is not going to feature for his province this weekend makes a return against France unlikely.

His hamstring injury came at just the wrong time and while his lineout ability would lend more balance to the back-row, the current trio of CJ Stander, fresh from his three-try salvo in Rome on Saturday, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip is arguably the most dynamic Ireland have ever fielded.

Josh van der Flier provides good cover and impact from the bench.

Irish Independent

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