Selection dilemmas for coach ahead of three-in-a-row bid
Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are likely to be released to Connacht and Ulster this weekend in order to get game-time in their Ireland positions ahead of the Six Nations opener against Wales on Sunday week.
Joe Schmidt has confirmed that between six to eight players will be allowed to go back to their provinces in order to get game-time, indicating that he will be asking his fellow head coaches to play his players in his preferred positions.
Henshaw only made his return from a hand injury last weekend, while Payne has played twice for Ulster since injuring his foot during the World Cup.
There has been some debate over whether Payne's recent runs at full-back could be a portent of a shift in international position, while Henshaw has also worn the No 15 jersey at Connacht.
With the emergence of Stuart McCloskey and the return to form of Luke Marshall, Schmidt has options in the centre, but it would be no surprise to see Henshaw play at inside centre for Connacht against Scarlets on Saturday and Payne wear the No 15 shirt for Ulster against Treviso on the same day.
"There are a lot of questions in our heads at the moment and we're not sure," Schmidt said of his team selection.
"Our combinations are being mixed up at the moment and they're a little bit complicated by some guys needing game-time.
"You'll see maybe six to eight guys go back and play this weekend, just because they are either short on game-time or short on game-time in a particular position. That's just us trying to get the best preparation possible and getting the balance between spending the time with us and getting their teeth into an actual game."
As for making changes to his preferred centre partnership, Schmidt seems unlikely to tinker with the formula he has had in place since November 2014.
"They are accomplished," he said of Henshaw and Payne.
"I think in the end Jared has only had two games so he's filled in pretty well and they've been solid games and he's moved into the midfield in both of them towards the end of the games so he hasn't really played a lot of anywhere. Robbie's still played more in the centre than he has at full-back so they're pretty comfortable in either position.
"So for us it is certain that we have a few midfield options there so there is the opportunity to drop them back there and at the same time they're probably both fairly short of game-time at the moment.
"One or both of them may even play this weekend."
Another key area up for debate is the back-row, where Schmidt must replace Peter O'Mahony on the blindside.
The arrival of CJ Stander is a boost to his options, but those thinking the Munster skipper will automatically come in to the team could be in for a surprise.
"Do you go CJ or do you go Rhys Ruddock, who gives you such power and his engine is so big he keeps going," he pondered. "Or do you flick Sean O'Brien over that side and put Tommy or Josh van der Flier on the other side, because I know Sean can play six."
Schmidt has no injury worries in his 35-man squad after Johnny Sexton came through his head injury protocols and he said he is frustrated with the furore that has surrounded his out-half's health issues.
"He feels this time last year that a number of opinions were thrown out, some of them by ex-players, one particular ex-player who didn't have quite the same medical expertise that two of the best guys in Europe had and he felt it was probably better to base his health on that expertise rather than someone who had never clinically analysed or assessed him or anyone else for that matter," he said.
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