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Emerging stars denied chance to shine as coach hints he'll stick to guns for Italy tie

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Peter O'Mahony

Peter O'Mahony

Peter O'Mahony

JOE SCHMIDT is engaged in a delicate balancing act in his first season as an international coach.

On one hand, there is a World Cup looming on the horizon and, at most, 18 Test matches left to prepare for it. On the other, there is a Six Nations championship to be won and his side are the front-runners.

The New Zealander has spoken of developing options and his bench is packed with youth, but the experienced starting XV has been consistent thus far and it is hard to see many left-field calls coming as he looks to beat Italy, where stretching his team's points difference lead over the chasing pack must be a priority, while making sure his players are in the best shape possible for the decider in Paris.

Building a squad is one thing, but the team have a real chance of winning a championship this spring and the coach wants them in the best place possible to execute it.

After all, as he reasonably argued at Lansdowne Road yesterday, the schedule dictates that if the coach decides to bring Luke Marshall into the frame for Italy, it would mean Gordon D'Arcy would head into the France game with just 80 minutes in five weeks under his belt.

IMPRESSED

So, it appears changes could remain at a minimum at Lansdowne Road next week against Italy, with the injuries hanging over Jonathan Sexton and Peter O'Mahony  potentially opening up a slot at out-half and blindside, where Iain Henderson impressed off the bench last weekend.

Since the end of last year's Six Nations, Ireland have used 47 players in Test rugby, but in the three games in this year's tournament only 17 have started.

Sexton's damaged thumb may not be enough to keep him out of action for Racing Metro against Top 14 champions Castres this weekend, and the toll of playing a club game in between Tests may see him sit out the Italy game, with Paddy Jackson next in line.

"It forces a decision on us depending on how he comes out of the game: whether he is off the bench or whether he starts the game. I'm not sure of the injury situation with Juan Martin Hernandez but he would be the obvious guy to play in place of Johnny," Schmidt said.

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"He wasn't 100pc last week apparently so I would be delighted if he was fully fit this week and that would certainly alleviate some of the stress on Johnny, particularly because if he can get a bit of time for that thumb injury not to be aggravated – I think it will be fine if it is not aggravated but if it is, then those sort of things can hang around for a little while and it does make it a bit more difficult."

O'Mahony's hamstring is not torn, which means there is hope the Munster captain could make it back for the Italy game, but given the coach feels that he "has no respect for his own body", he may be held in reserve for Paris.

That would bring Henderson and the in-form Rhys Ruddock into the equation, while Fergus McFadden could get a start after coming off the bench in all three games to date.

Schmidt said he has spoken to Simon Zebo about the reasons he is not involved, but the noises were not good for the Munster winger.

And the New Zealander has been pleasantly surprised by the amount of rest time for his players to get right in time for Italy after a Test match as tough as England.

"There is a real balance. There may be guys like Johnny and Peter O'Mahony who may be starting to get some wear and tear about them and that may guide us in a particular direction," he said.

"There's been a weekend off for the players prior to England and a weekend off prior to Italy; they're massive games and there is breathing space in between them for players to freshen up."

That, plus the fact that those in camp have been learning and practising the moves needed to implement Schmidt's game plan means change looks likely to be at a premium in the weeks to come.


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