Sport Rugby

Thursday 22 March 2018

Schmidt 'on tenterhooks' over mission to wow fans

Simon Zebo supported by Felix Jones
Simon Zebo supported by Felix Jones
David Kelly

David Kelly

Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo have been called into Ireland's Six Nations camp and they will join Fergus McFadden in a three-pronged battle for the Wolfhounds' screen test as they chase a place on the wing to face Scotland in two weeks' time.

With Keith Earls awaiting the results of a scan on a suspected knee medial ligament injury, the early signs are that he will at least miss the opening two games of the championship against Scotland and Wales, while the England game may also prove to be an elusive target.

Schmidt thus faces a headache with only Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald arriving in camp after a clear run of games without being shadowed by injury concerns.

There was some surprise that Schmidt had omitted Zebo despite the Lions wing making his playing comeback with Munster before the extensive combined Wolfhounds and Six Nations squad was announced.

Gilroy, who sustained a broken nose and concussion in round five of the Heineken Cup, featured for Ulster in their win against Leicester last weekend while Zebo replaced the stricken Earls in his side's Edinburgh success.

McFadden fractured a hand against Australia last November and hasn't played since but Schmidt is a fan of his former Leinster charge and is likely to want to afford him a chance to prove his fitness against England Saxons in Gloucester on Saturday.

Schmidt name-checked McFadden in a bulletin which was delivered two days ago from the Ireland camp.

Tommy Bowe will not be available for the first two games, with Schmidt confirming England on February 22 is a more viable proposition, providing he gets a chance to prove his recovery from groin trouble in Pro12 action with Ulster.

The Ireland coach has intimated that he and the Wolfhounds coaching staff will use this weekend's 'A' game as an opportunity to provide returning injured players - Schmidt named Rory Best and Cian Healy - and aspiring senior squad members with game time.

Those who impress the Ireland coach will then be afforded an opportunity to stake a place in a subsequent 32-man squad for the opening two Six Nations games.

The IRFU have also allayed concerns about Chris Henry's fitness, despite pictures on social media that suggested the Ulster flanker had broken his nose last weekend, confirming that Earls was the only major injury doubt.


"We'll try to keep it competitive and not give too many people a heads-up," said Schmidt of his selection for this weekend's game, as he bids to build upon a fitful November series that featured a heavy defeat to Australia and an agonising near miss against New Zealand.

"We'll chat after two training sessions and try to give us a balanced side between returning players and young guys. It will be a balancing act to keep the 44 players happy.

"I learned how to structure an international window in November and a lot about the players outside Leinster that I didn't know about. There was a lot of learning about depth. We used 29 players and we have some injuries going into this championship. It's a 23-man game now and we needed that depth in all three matches. It will be important to grow that.

"Combining both the Wolfhounds squad and the Scotland squad will help us there. I'm a little nervous and everyone is on tenterhooks. There's a degree of expectation and we want to beat the expectations the public have of us.

"The autumn series are a notoriously bad indicator of form. England beat the All Blacks in 2012 and didn't quite get there in the Six Nations, France were unbeaten but finished bottom. So we need to start from scratch in some ways after what happened in November."

Meanwhile, England Saxons have added Elliot Stooke, Matt Hopper, Rob Miller and Tom Mercey to the squad preparing to face the Wolfhounds.

Gloucester lock Stooke (20) replaces the injured Graham Kitchener to join fellow Junior World Championship winners Henry Slade and Sam Hill in the 23-man group. Leicester Tigers utility back Matthew Tait misses out through injury.

Irish Independent

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