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Schmidt wary of dropping winners

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Ireland's maul has been hugely successful so far and Joe Schmidt is unlikely to change a winning formula

Ireland's maul has been hugely successful so far and Joe Schmidt is unlikely to change a winning formula

SPORTSFILE

Ireland's maul has been hugely successful so far and Joe Schmidt is unlikely to change a winning formula

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has admitted that he has been forced to reassess his selection policy ahead of the Triple Crown decider with England in Twickenham in eight days' time – because his front-liners are doing so well.

As his Triple Crown chasing heroes met with the four-legged stars at Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle base during their mini-camp, Schmidt confirmed that he may have to put the blinkers on when it comes to choosing the XV to start against England.

That could be discouraging news for a clutch of players seeking to force his hand in this week's Pro12 action – beginning with the welcome return to full fitness of Leinster scrum-half Eoin Reddan, who seeks to dislodge Isaac Boss from the Ireland replacements' bench.

However, despite confirming that he fully expected Luke Fitzgerald to also return to Leinster's side for tonight's RDS clash with Dragons, the luckless winger has been left out.

After both Schmidt and Matt O'Connor declared confidently that Fitzgerald would return, his omission was shrouded in mystery after Leinster confirmed that he completed Wednesday's training session with no further complications.

Although Fitzgerald did feature from the bench against New Zealand in November's series without a previous warm-up game, Schmidt may be unlikely to take a similar risk again.

That could open the door for either Craig Gilroy or Simon Zebo to challenge current incumbent three-quarter replacement Fergus McFadden after the selectors examine this weekend's Pro12 action.

But Schmidt has dampened speculation that he may be in line to make swingeing alterations to his winning side; last month, he hinted that he would like 24 or 25 different players to start during the championship.

"You have to balance it in terms of form really," said the coach, when asked to assess the difficulty in experimenting while his team are performing well.

"It's a difficult thing to grow the squad if the current players in the team are in great form," said Schmidt, as his thoroughbreds mingled with their equine equivalents, including Galileo, at the world-famous Ballydoyle stables in Tipperary. "It's hard to leave them out of the squad. So the challenge for those guys is to stay on form and keep delivering.

"And then the challenge for the other players is to give as good a display as they can. In that regard, we watched the games closely last weekend and we'll be keeping a close eye this weekend also.

"There are a few guys not too far away from reappearing. It'd be great for Eoin and Luke to reappear this weekend and then again Donnacha Ryan might make an appearance. I think those guys are available for selection anyway, post-injury. Whether or not they appear or not I'm not too sure. But we're very interested in those guys."

Schmidt's comments came before yesterday's Leinster team selection confirmed Fitzgerald's absence and it was unclear whether injury or a request from the Ireland coach to hold him back for training with Ireland was behind the decision.

Schmidt also confirmed that in the light of Tommy Bowe's continued injury absence from Ulster's first-team, he would not be considered for next week's clash and a return has been tentatively stretched to only include the final two games of the championship.

Schmidt and his selectors are also keen to assess the ongoing form of key squad players such as Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, Iain Henderson, Tommy O'Donnell and Luke Marshall while he confirmed that he will be keeping an eye on the form of jilted wingers Zebo and Gilroy.

"The guys who have that wing jersey are performing really well, and Fergus has added energy off the bench and he gets more game-time this weekend. We also have Simon and Craig playing this week and Luke returning."

EXPECTATION

Schmidt also confirmed that he had not reassessed his modest pre-championship expectation for his side to finish in the top half of the Six Nations table, despite their impressive unbeaten start.

"It would be great to get into the top half after where we were last year," he said. "We're in a good position so far but we've two massive games to come away from home and we know the Italians punch above their weight, so there's nothing easy there.

"I probably wouldn't change my assessment but I'm not looking past the England game . If we get a result there, that would be great. But they'll do everything in their power to make sure we don't and we know they've a lot of power. Across the board they're very strong."

Irish Independent