Schmidt considers growing options despite doubts over Heaslip's shoulder
No 8 set to train today to prove fitness for Rome as coach ponders selection
Jamie Heaslip must come through training today in order to prove his fitness for Saturday's Six Nations opener against Italy but despite doubts over the No 8's participation, things are looking up for Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
The Leinster man (right) has not trained fully since coming into camp as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury sustained when playing for his province against Ulster on January 3 and, while he is considered a "small doubt" by the Ireland management, it is expected that he'll play.
The news was generally positive from the national team camp in Co Kildare yesterday, with Conor Murray expected to play against the Italians - which will be crucial given the fact that Johnny Sexton is absent.
The Racing Metro man will travel to Paris on Thursday for a consultation with his neurosurgeon to determine that he'll be up to playing against France on Saturday week, with Ian Madigan still the favourite to deputise in Rome, where Murray's growing stature and experience will be a vital factor.
With Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne likely to link up in the midfield despite Keith Earls coming through last Friday's Wolfhounds game against England Saxons and Luke Fitzgerald back after missing that game due to a stomach bug, the back-three is full of contenders for Schmidt to pick from.
Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe are almost certain to start and, although Dave Kearney returned to training yesterday, he faces a tough battle to wrest the No 11 jersey from Simon Zebo's shoulders. Fitzgerald is another option along with Earls, but the back three who went well in November could well be asked to go again.
Up front, Schmidt is boosted by the news that Jack McGrath and Mike Ross came through their return unscathed on Friday and they are likely to link up with Rory Best or Sean Cronin in Rome, while Cian Healy underwent final tests on his hamstring yesterday and is expected to return to full training on Thursday, which may come too late for Saturday's game.
That would mean James Cronin would provide back-up for McGrath, while Marty Moore and Sean Cronin would also deputise for the front-row positions - but Moore could yet push Ross out of the starting XV.
The second-row partnership of Devin Toner and captain Paul O'Connell is unlikely to be broken up despite Iain Henderson's brilliant recent form, with the Ulster lock likely to be picked on the bench despite Mike McCarthy's positive recovery from the concussion he suffered on Friday.
The back-row is another area of real depth despite Rhys Ruddock and Chris Henry's absence, with Pater O'Mahony and Heaslip nailed on if fit, with Jordi Murphy appearing the more likely option, with Sean O'Brien on the bench after he showed no ill-effects from his return to the field on Friday.
Eoin Reddan is in a race to be fit for the bench and is expected to train today as he recovers from a knee injury, but Heaslip appears the greatest concern.
"There is probably some small doubt about him but he has rehabbed well," manager Mick Kearney said.
"Being the professional athlete that he is, he really does look after his body extremely well. The next day or two would tell a lot. But there would be a small degree of doubt."