Friday 23 February 2018

Fringe men can seize chance to impress Schmidt

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

BACK when fixtures like this were humbly known as 'A' games and acted as social occasions at Donnybrook on Six Nations weekends, there was little immediacy to the need to impress.

The senior team had been named and the focus was on the next day's events. An eye was being kept on the second string, but in reality there was little the players could do to change their standing in the pecking order right away.

While rebranding the side will do little to help the men who slip on the green jersey and go out to impress at Kingsholm this evening, the fact that there are still five days remaining until Joe Schmidt names his team to face Scotland at Lansdowne Road offers hope.

While the front-liners trained on the hallowed turf yesterday, Anthony Foley had whisked the second string off to Gloucester to step up preparations.

Reports from the 45-man training camp were of intense exchanges with the 'Wolfhounds' going up against the A-listers in Maynooth as the scramble for places accelerated ahead of the cull early next week.

With a number of positions in the match-day 23 still up for grabs, there will be plenty of those in action at Kingsholm looking to make a big impact.

But in what positions is the race most open and who are the players for whom tonight's audition can secure a part on the main stage?

BACK-ROW

Vice-captain Jamie Heaslip and blindside Peter O'Mahony would appear nailed on to secure starting berths for the Six Nations, but the openside jersey remains up for grabs, while a bench spot also needs filling for the Championship.

Foley has effectively got six back-rows in his squad today, with all of Iain Henderson's caps coming at blindside ahead of tonight's start in the second-row. Robbie Diack is covering the lock position, but the South African-born Ulster player is a back-row by trade, while the starting trio of captain Rhys Ruddock (below), Tommy O'Donnell and Robin Copeland are backed up by Jordi Murphy.

Chris Henry is the favourite to wear the No 7 jersey in Sean O'Brien's absence, but O'Donnell has a chance to put himself further in the frame, while Leinster youngster Murphy will hope to have an impact off the bench at either openside or No 8.

Considering Kevin McLaughlin covered the back-row slots during November and is not in the squad this time around, there is certainly a Six Nations bench spot available for the trio, while Munster's O'Donnell still has a shot at a starting spot.

Ruddock's form has been excellent in recent months and he will push O'Mahony hard for the blindside spot; having captained Ireland at U-20 level and led the Emerging side in Georgia last summer, his appointment as Wolfhounds skipper underlines his leadership capacities.

"People follow him," Foley said. "When he speaks, it is worth listening to. He knows, he gets a feel for it and guys follow him. It's what you look for in your captain, someone you automatically look up to."

Copeland's ball-carrying could make a big impact off the bench, so a good display from him tonight could propel him up the pecking order, even if Heaslip's seeming indestructibility dictates that cover is a priority in other areas.

WING

Injuries to Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls have left a major question mark over the starting wing positions ahead of the Scotland game, with Dave Kearney the man in possession coming out of November.

Bowe's absence leaves a vacancy that Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble are battling to fill, but there are a trio of players who have returned to fitness just in time, even if Schmidt is not sure whether Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy are quite ready for inclusion.

They have played games, but Fergus McFadden hasn't. Even still, he was named ahead of the duo in the initial squad before both were called up in the wake of Earls' misfortune.

All three are included in the squad today and Schmidt will be hoping that McFadden can hit the ground running. Despite the heavy loss to Australia, the Kildare native's performance in the middle November Test shouldn't be discounted – he was Ireland's best player by a country mile, making five clean line breaks.

Gilroy can benefit from the game time today, while Zebo can force his way in with a repeat of the impact he made against Edinburgh on Sunday.

TIGHTHEAD

Ireland's scrum malfunctioned against the Saxons last season, with Michael Bent coming under all sorts of pressure alongside Mike Sherry and Dave Kilcoyne in the front-row.

Rodney Ah You trained with the front-liners at Lansdowne Road yesterday and could skip the Wolfhounds route to the squad, but Martin Moore has been outstanding for Leinster this season and his dove-tailing with Mike Ross could continue if he can dominate Northampton's Alex Waller today.

Stephen Archer has done well with Munster in recent weeks, but his poor display against Australia is still fresh in the memory and he could do with making an impact.

SCRUM-HALF

When he left Conor Murray out of his team to play Australia, Schmidt sent a message that no place is secure.

Eoin Reddan started that day and got no protection from his pack before losing out on the match-day squad a week later to Isaac Boss, who togged out and was ready to come on in the closing stages against New Zealand, but never made it into the fray.

While Murray looks to remain first choice for the big games, Boss can make an impact here after missing out on Leinster's Heineken Cup team, and Kieran Marmion will look to replicate his stunning Connacht form with a big display to stay in Schmidt's plans.

Irish Independent

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