Friday 20 October 2017

Plenty of big names set to miss out as full house causes selection headache for Joe Schmidt

Joe Schmidt has the benefit of having all his playing aces at his dispoal for this Saturday's Six Nations opener against Scotland Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt has the benefit of having all his playing aces at his dispoal for this Saturday's Six Nations opener against Scotland Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The injury clouds appear to be parting at Carton House, where the topic of Johnny Sexton and Sean O'Brien's health once again dominates the agenda ahead of the Six Nations.

New Ireland manager Paul Dean gave his first media briefing at the squad's Kildare headquarters and, while he revealed that Andrew Conway had returned to Munster due to a groin injury, the news was largely good.

O'Brien and Keith Earls resumed full training yesterday, while Sexton is due back today, which means Joe Schmidt will have 40 men on the pitch this morning for his all-important Tuesday training session.

Throughout his time in charge, the Ireland coach has insisted that players must be able to take a full part in the second session of the week to prove their fitness and, while there have been one or two exceptions to the rule as campaigns have gone on, he has largely stuck to that policy.

If all the players take the field, the challenge for the coach won't just be keeping the whole lot of them occupied.

The main thing he must consider is how to pick the best 23 when so many big guns are putting their hands up for selection.

There are a number of pressure points where at least one established international will miss out on selection, and managing disappointment will be part of the job for the coaches.

Back three

Rob Kearney conceded yesterday that competition for places in the back three has rarely been fiercer but his presence at yesterday's press conference would indicate that his reign as Ireland's full-back is not quite over yet.

When fit, the Louth man has long been one of the first names on Schmidt's team-sheet and that looks set to continue despite his missing out on selection for Leinster's last two European games.

Simon Zebo is breathing down his neck, but may be accommodated on the wing after an excellent November campaign that saw him start both games against New Zealand and then come off the bench - having struggled with injury - to play an important role in the win over Australia.

If he continues to hold Schmidt's trust, then the remaining wing spot is between last year's starters Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls. Earls' rib injury may have allowed the Ulsterman to steal a march in training.

Centres

With Jared Payne out, the likelihood is that Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw will reprise their Leinster partnership, and while Luke Marshall, Rory Scannell and Stuart McCloskey are all in camp, that combination looks nailed on to start against Scotland.

Half-backs

Conor Murray's name is inked in and as long as Sexton comes through training unscathed he will almost certainly start at out-half.

Paddy Jackson is on stand-by, with Ian Keatley in training just in case of emergency and Rory Scannell also available to cover the No 10 slot if needed.

The battle between Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion to cover Murray will be hotly contested, but the Connacht man has credit in the bank after playing so well on the wing against Australia.

Front-row

The most straightforward selection of all. Barring a major surprise, Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong will start, with Cian Healy and Finlay Belham covering the prop positions.

Schmidt may rotate McGrath and Healy as the tournament goes on, while James Tracy will hope his involvement in November and knowledge of the Irish systems and lineout will edge him ahead of Niall Scannell on the bench.

Second-row

Devin Toner is a nailed-on certainty to lead the lineout, but there is plenty of debate about who will partner him in the engine room as Donnacha Ryan carries serious form into the tournament.

He played well in Noevember, but was replaced by Iain Henderson for the Australia game as the workload took a toll.

Henderson is the more explosive option, but his form has matched Ulster's this season and it could cost him.

If Ryan is selected, Henderson then has a battle with fit-again Ultan Dillane for the No 19 slot, and his ability to cover the back-row may see him edge it.

Back-row

The area that will perhaps give Schmidt more sleepless nights than any as he tries to fit an array of world-class options into the three available positions.

Jamie Heaslip's hold on the No 8 jersey will continue, while CJ Stander appears undroppable in the No 6 shirt, so it would appear to be between Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Josh van der Flier for the remaining spot.

O'Mahony was the odd man out in November, but O'Brien's last-minute injury handed him a chance against Australia and he took his brilliantly when replacing Heaslip and his form for Munster has been excellent.

O'Brien, when fit, offers a compelling proposition, while Van der Flier has never let Ireland down and Schmidt likes what he offers off the bench.

Much will come down to how they train, but it would be no surprise if O'Mahony was the unfortunate odd man out once again, with O'Brien starting and Van der Flier coming off the bench.

Irish Independent

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