Predicted Ireland XV: Schmidt set to return to tried and tested with some in-form omissions for Six Nations opener
By naming almost half of the players available to him in his squad for rounds one and two of the Six Nations yesterday, Joe Schmidt continued to keep the country guessing.
Forty players assembled at Carton House to begin preparations for the tournament, and with expectations high after an excellent November there was little to get disgruntled about.
Leinster wings Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin may be a little perturbed to have missed out given their form relative to Ulster pair Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy, while there was a social media outcry after Ian Madigan was predictably left out of the panel, but by and large this was a squad announcement low on shock value.
With Schmidt opting to release the squad via email along with two lines of carefully sanitised quotes, there was no chance to quiz the New Zealander on his selection. That will come tomorrow when he faces the media for the first time since the autumn at the Six Nations launch in London.
What we did learn from the selection is that the coach is clearly confident that Johnny Sexton’s calf problem is not serious. If it was, Paddy Jackson would not be the only other out-half in the squad but it is likely that Madigan is on stand-by in Bordeaux just in case the injury flares up again.
The exiled former Leinster man has been kept in the loop this season despite not being involved in November, but even if Schmidt wanted him in camp he wouldn’t be able to get his hands on him for another week because his club are in action against Clermont at home on Sunday.
With no direct flights from Bordeaux to Dublin at this time of the year, that would mean that Madigan would face quite the trek to get back in time to train with the squad before the Six Nations opener against Scotland.
He is very much in the emergency category as a result.
As is Marty Moore. The Wasps prop is enjoying a good run of form for the Premiership club, but unless there is another tighthead injury he is likely to remain on the outside looking in with home-based trio Tadhg Furlong, Finlay Bealham and John Ryan all ahead of him in the pecking order.
Jared Payne and Sean Cronin miss out due to injury, but by and large the men who delivered a historic November series are fit and available.
Sexton comes into the tournament under another injury cloud having amassed just 127 minutes of rugby since injuring his hamstring in the defeat to New Zealand on November 19.
He was given time to recuperate in December in an attempt to move past the hamstring problems that plagued his early season, but he felt a tightness in his calf against Castres on Friday night and came off.
It appears that he identified the problem just in time and should be fit enough to play, but the succession of soft-tissue injuries accrued by arguably Ireland’s most important player has to be a concern.
So too are the problems Sean O’Brien is enduring in trying to put together a run of games.
Other than that, the tournament represents the next step in re-generating the squad with the 2019 World Cup in mind.
A year ago, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane and, to a lesser extent, Stuart McCloskey breathed new life into the team and after finishing the Championship with wins over Scotland and Italy Schmidt continued to introduce fresh blood and finished 2016 having handed out 18 new caps.
Most of those are included in the squad for this window. The average number of caps in the squad is 26, the average age is 27 but a quarter of the squad have won one cap or none.
It’s likely that many of those called up are included for the learning experience as much as anything. This is a hard match-day 23 to break into.
The two openings from November come in the outside-centre berth and as replacement hooker.
Payne’s long-term absence as a result of the serious kidney injury he suffered against Australia opens the door for Garry Ringrose to continue his budding partnership with Leinster colleague Robbie Henshaw.
However, Schmidt was in Castres on Friday night as Ringrose was among a number of previously in-form Leinster tyros who struggled as the heat came on. He has probably earned enough trust from the Ireland coach, but James Tracy’s wayward throwing may have opened the door for Niall Scannell to leap-frog him on to the bench.
The Munster hooker has been excellent all season and, while Tracy has been in camp previously and so has a head-start in terms of knowing the calls and plays, his unreliability out of touch is an issue.
The most competitive spot on the team will again be the back-row where the incumbents CJ Stander, O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip – with Van der Flier on the bench – will feel the heat of Peter O’Mahony breathing down their necks, with Jack Conan also carrying excellent form into the campaign.
The Munster captain made a brilliant bid for a return when he came off the bench against Australia having initially been left out of the match-day 23 for all of the big November games.
That the most likely successor to Best as skipper can’t get into the match-day squad is a prime example of how fierce the back-row competition is.
Elsewhere, it’s likely to be as you were with Jack McGrath, Best and Furlong the first-choice front-row, with Iain Henderson and Donnacha Ryan vying to be Devin Toner’s second-row partner with Dillane an impact option.
Conor Murray and a fit Sexton are the first-choice pairing, with Jackson a very able deputy; Luke McGrath will be hoping his poor display in Castres hasn’t knocked his chances of jumping ahead of Kieran Marmion too much.
In the back three, Rob Kearney will hope that Schmidt retains his long-held faith after he was named on the bench for Leinster’s last two Champions Cup games, with Simon Zebo in flying form in the Munster No 15 shirt. If Kearney holds his place, Zebo will likely be battling Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble for the wing spots despite Bowe’s return.
Competition when the 40 players take to the training pitch should be fierce. Given the unwieldy size of the squad, some will struggle to get a chance to shine but Schmidt places value on having them in there and knowing the ropes.
When it comes to the action, his focus is on reclaiming his prize and the big guns will be rolled out as a result.
Predicted team to face Scotland: R Kearney; A Trimble, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: N Scannell, C Healy, F Bealham, I Henderson, J van der Flier, L McGrath, P Jackson, S Zebo.