Monday 19 March 2018

Easterby rules out cheap caps but Schmidt will experiment

Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby
Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Simon Easterby wasn't about to offer up any state secrets to a room full of journalists on the first day of school, but the Ireland forwards coach did eventually offer up a few pointers as to the composition of Saturday's team when pressed yesterday.

We didn't get as far as names, but the former flanker conceded that the staff would mix and match when it came to selecting the side to face Wales.

What we know for sure is that Cian Healy won't feature as he races to be fit in time for the World Cup after undergoing neck surgery, while Sean Cronin, Luke Fitzgerald and Marty Moore are highly unlikely to play as they continue to rehabilitate following shoulder procedures.

Healy remains Ireland's biggest doubt for England 2015 and, for all the positive noises from Easterby and the IRFU yesterday, it will be the end of August at the earliest by the time the Clontarf man might be risked - and no decision has been taken on whether he could travel without playing first.

"It is difficult to put a definitive answer on that. We'll have to assess that nearer the time," Easterby said. "He's progressing. It's week to week. The medical team are giving him the best opportunity to get back to full fitness come the end of August."

Otherwise, it's a full deck for Joe Schmidt to choose from, but it appears unlikely we'll be seeing Paul O'Connell, Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy Bowe or Johnny Sexton in Cardiff.

Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls look like being afforded an opportunity to resume their international careers after their long enforced absences from the scene, while Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip could lend experience.

It remains to be seen how Schmidt wants his backline to line up with Earls admitting he's been asked to run on the wing and at centre in pre-season, while Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson are battling for the No 10 shirt if Sexton is kept on ice.

Wales coach Warren Gatland left out most of his front-line players for the Millennium Stadium, combining four new caps with a half-back partnership from the late 2000s in Mike Phillips and James Hook.

The challenge for the Ireland management is striking a balance between getting players who need game time minutes on the pitch, while offering those who have earned an opportunity the chance to impress.

There is, according to Easterby, no guarantee that every member of the 46-man panel assembled at Carton House will see action, but it appears that group - the initial 45-man squad plus Nathan White - will remain intact until next week at the earliest.

"We are looking at different options, there's no secret in that, but we have to be fair in giving as many opportunities to those we feel deserve opportunity, but it's a Test match and we're not going to hand out caps for the sake of it just because they're in the wider squad," he said.

"Wales' selection doesn't change our thinking, it's important that we focus and prepare for this game as you would do any Test match and make sure that individuals are clued in on some of the strengths and weaknesses of opposition.

"But we also have to focus on ourselves and make sure that we that we get our own house in order.

"There's always going to be element of fatigue in these early games, and an element of rustiness, but we've just going to be as accurate as we can be and work together, and hopefully that will show that throughout the build-up into the World Cup.

"We're really happy with where the squad is. Each individual has to have to best opportunity to impress, and that doesn't mean going off on his own, it's important that we do that as a group."

Irish Independent

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