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Brent Pope: Joe Schmidt can let loose the Hounds

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Jack Conan during squad training

Jack Conan during squad training

Jack Conan during squad training

tonight's game between the Irish Wolfhounds, effectively the old Irish A team in a shaggy coat, and the English Saxons may be a throwback to times past, but it will still be invaluable for Joe Schmidt, especially in a World Cup year.

In a media scrum that has been dominated by the provinces, the Six Nations has crept up on us quietly, with just over a week before Ireland's opening bout in the Eternal City.

Despite falling well behind England in terms of playing numbers and finances, Irish rugby is still in a pretty good shape in terms of player strength and depth.

Every year Ireland compete particularly well with their English counterparts at every level of the game from schools rugby up, and especially at Wolfhound or "A" level, where over the years Ireland have more than held their own.

The Wolfhounds has always been the perfect opportunity for the national coach to assess a player's fitness in returning from injury, or to see if a promising player can make that next step up to international level.

The best selection mix is often on e of seasoned internationals combined with up and coming players. That way Schmidt and his management team can see first-hand how the younger players interact and how they fare outside of their usual comfort zone.

Not all players make it. In many countries just because you play at this level does not guarantee you gain a full international cap but in Ireland's case it is fairly likely. With so many injuries in the modern game, end of season tours, players rested etc, players today have a much better chance of tagging "international rugby player" on their CVs.

important role

These matches also have a more important role, effectively tying a player to a particular nation. This week we have heard how Gareth Anscombe (yes, son of former Ulster coach Mark) has declared and been selected for Wales after a serious stint with New Zealand at underage level.

World rugby rules now stipulate that a single appearance for that country's 'second' side ties you to that nation for the entirety of your playing career.

Tonight, we get to see some really interesting and exciting combinations. Flanker Sean O'Brien has made it back for some game time after taking a full part in training at Carton House this week.

The rumour last year was that one of the world's great ball carriers might not make it back, such was the severity of his injury.

All the training in the world cannot replicate a match situation but fingers crossed O'Brien's shoulder is perfect and he is ready to resume his international career.

Another player who actually seems to have benefited from the enforced injury sabbatical is Ulster's versatile Iain Henderson.

Henderson, who burst onto the scene a few years ago scoring a memorable try against Munster in Thomond Park has seriously bulked up. He was the best player on the pitch last week against Leicester Tigers, despite Darren Cave's three-try heroics.

aggression

Full of aggression and power, Henderson carried strongly, blasted every ruck with venom and tackled anything that moved. He is the perfect cover for second row and flanker come the World Cup.

Leinster's Jack Conan is also rewarded for his good recent form. While still raw, he has been the find of the season, either at 8 or at 6. Conan's extra weight and sublime lines of running have been a revelation for Leinster.

Elsewhere Ian Madigan has been given much-needed game time at 10. Madigan is coming under some serious heat from Munster's Ian Keatley for the starting out-half position next week, with Jonny Sexton ruled out of the first game.

And with Keatley nailing almost all his kicks at goal last week and Madigan missing most of his, that will be a real concern for Schmidt.

Madigan offers more dynamism and gain line play than Keatley, but then Schmidt will be aware that Ireland will need all the early points they can get against a sticky Italian side. Madigan will be given a chance to prove his radar is back working.

It is great to see Keith Earls continue his comeback, combining in the midfield with the experience of Gordon D'Arcy, while Connacht's Kieran Marmion gets a chance to battle for the third scrumhalf spot in a World Cup squad that will carry three.


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