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Leinster's Eoin Reddan

Leinster's Eoin Reddan

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald

Iain Henderson

Iain Henderson

SPORTSFILE

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Leinster's Eoin Reddan

AS the core of the Irish team took shelter from the high winds and heavy rain at their temporary base in Clonmel yesterday, those on the fringes were plotting their way into Joe Schmidt's attention.

The down week in the Six Nations will afford those who have watched from the sidelines or come off the bench in recent weeks a chance to stake their claim, while it will also give a number of injured players a chance to prove their fitness.

Word coming out of the provinces this week is of an increase in intensity since the international squad members arrived back to training with a pep in their step following Ireland's back-to-back opening wins.

In their absence, three of the four provinces won last weekend, with Connacht going close in Glasgow, and there is a real feelgood factor going into the Six Nations break and ahead of Saturday week's tilt at Twickenham.

"Things are going so strongly that Joe had a headache when it came to international selection, which is what he wants," Fergus McFadden said yesterday, adding that it is quite a contrast to this time last year.

"There were inconsistencies between training and playing. In the final period of when Deccie (Declan Kidney) was in the job there were a lot of changes in and out of the team," he explained.

"Confidence probably wasn't high. We were losing to the likes of Scotland away and then that Italian game was just the nail in the coffin. That's not where Irish rugby was at from a provincial point of view. The fact that we were losing those games just didn't really add up.

"The consistency has come back a small bit after winning those two games. But we saw from the Welsh last year that they lost their first game and were about to lose eight on the trot but went on to win the championship.

"Things can change very quickly and it's about trying to keep the consistency between the provincial and international set-ups."

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor agreed that the buzz of the returning internationals has lifted things around UCD this week.

"The quality of blokes that you get coming back off a couple of good Test wins is always good for the vibe," he said yesterday, and Munster coach Rob Penney had a similar feeling after his internationals returned. "There's an intensity that they're used to – an expectation they are used to at Irish camp. Those lads come back and they bring a bit of that," the Munster head coach said.

So, when Schmidt dries himself off after two days in the eye of the storm in Clonmel, what might he be watching out for this weekend?

THE RETURN OF THE

INJURED OPTIONS

Schmidt will keep a keen eye on Luke Fitzgerald and Eoin Reddan at Leinster, while Donnacha Ryan's return for Munster is timely after Dan Tuohy's misfortune last weekend.

The Leinster pair were both named in the original squad and came off the bench in the final game in November and O'Connor intends to use them at some stage tomorrow.

"Luke trained today so we just have to see how he responds to that session. All things being equal you would like him to be involved this weekend, but it is just one of those things," the former Leicester coach warned.

"'Redser' is about the same. He has done all his recovery, ticked all the boxes, and should be involved as well."

With Penney confident Ryan can overcome his knee problems quickly and go straight into contention for the England game, Mike McCarthy set for another outing for Leinster having overcome his facial injury and played against Zebre, and the versatile Iain Henderson likely to be involved for Ulster against the Scarlets tomorrow, Schmidt will have plenty of food for thought as he replaces Tuohy.

SPREADING HIS WINGS

McFadden and Fitzgerald are just two of the players competing for the wide spots this week in one of the most competitive areas in Schmidt's squad.

Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble should feel secure in their positions after two good outings, but with the coach promising change, the wing slots are looking one of the more likely areas where he could tinker.

Fitzgerald came into the tournament in good form but his groin injury has held him back, while McFadden was arguably the player of November after his five line-breaks against Australia.

Then you have the exiles, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy, while Tommy Bowe is out of the picture with injury and won't make it back in time for tomorrow's action.

"I think the wings are probably the most competitive position now. It's about getting the best out of certain players," McFadden said.

"'Trimby' wasn't really in the mix come November but he put in some good performances and is back in there, Tommy Bowe is injured and Simon Zebo and Gilroy can't get in the squad.

"When you look at those quality players who can't get in it puts an emphasis on how competitive a position it is.

"It's competitive across the board. There are only three or four names who would definitely be on the team-sheet if everyone was fit, but otherwise it's competitive and that's the way you want it to be."

BACK-ROW BENCH CHOICES

Reports from Munster indicate Tommy O'Donnell has come back into the provincial set-up with a real spring in his step after doubling his cap total off the bench over the last fortnight.

But the Tipperary man knows he is being pushed by Leinster's Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy, who will be hoping to force their way in with strong displays against the Dragons.

"Once he got a wee bit of consistent game time at seven and warmed to the task, he was able to unleash himself and that growth was hopefully going to be something he was going to build on at the start of this year," Penney said of O'Donnell.

"Unfortunately he got a horrific injury and for him to bounce back and to be unimpaired and unencumbered by that injury is a great credit to the guy's rehab and a great credit to the medical staff."

That has put him in pole position to cover the back row, but O'Connor was equally effusive about Murphy when asked about the as-yet-uncapped back-row.

"He's an exceptional athlete who does things on the field that a lot of forwards couldn't dream of doing," the Leinster coach said. "He gives the group so much in that athletic realm. He has got to play more rugby. Across all those positions he has done bits and pieces, done a job for us. We are pretty comfortable with him at six, seven or eight. He does a job for us."

The Pro12 may fade into insignificance at this time of year, but for the Irish players looking to catch Schmidt's eye, the weekend is key.

Everybody wants to be part of the winning team, but competition is fierce and opportunities are at a minimum.

Even so, the coach will be watching his fringe options with a keen eye this weekend. With the other on Twickenham, he'll have plenty on his plate.

Irish Independent