Joe Schmidt to start CJ Stander at 6 and Simon Zebo at full-back
Published 05/02/2016 | 02:30
Joe Schmidt looks set to hand CJ Stander his Ireland debut against Wales on Sunday, with the South African primed to start the Six Nations opener at blindside flanker.
The New Zealander is likely to be without Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien, who both sat out training on Wednesday with muscle injuries and are unlikely to be risked for the first game, with Simon Zebo and Tommy O'Donnell on standby to start if they don't recover in time.
With a six-day turnaround before Ireland play France in Paris, the head coach may opt for conservatism and hope the Leinster pair can return in time for the second game.
Zebo's selection at full-back would likely see Keith Earls start on the left wing with Andrew Trimble on the other side, as Schmidt reverts to his trusted partnership of Robbie Henshaw Jared Payne in the centre.
Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will resume their partnership at half-back, with Ian Madigan backing up the No 10 shirt and covering the centre after Paddy Jackson was released to take his place on Ulster's bench tonight against Dragons.
Up front, Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Nathan White are expected to be named in the front-row, with Devin Toner joined by Mike McCarthy in the engine room. James Cronin, Sean Cronin and Tadhg Furlong are likely to provide cover for the front-rows.
Jamie Heaslip is expected to continue at No 8, with Stander on the blindside and O'Donnell on the flank if O'Brien can't prove his fitness.
The make-up of Schmidt's bench will be interesting, with Donnacha Ryan and Rhys Ruddock likely to get the nod, unless the coach opts to select two back-rows with Josh van der Flier joining Ruddock. A host of players are battling for the No 23 shirt, with Madigan's ability to cover the centre suggesting that Dave Kearney could get the nod if his brother isn't involved ahead of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall who aren't involved at Kingspan Stadium tonight.
The selection of Stander would be the most eye-catching pick from Schmidt who names his team at 2.0 today.
A native of George in South Africa, he signed for Munster in 2013 as a 'project player' and qualified to play for Ireland on residency in November.
Named Munster captain for the season when Peter O'Mahony suffered his season-ending injury against Argentina, Stander has been the province's stand-out player and will add real ball-carrying bite to a pack deprived of some big impact players against Wales.
Ireland (Possible team v Wales) - S Zebo; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, N White; D Toner, M McCarthy; CJ Stander, T O'Donnell, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, J Cronin, T Furlong, D Ryan, R Ruddock, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Kearney.