Sunday 18 November 2018

Ireland to roll out big guns for Welsh rematch as 'anxiety' grows

Sexton: Ready for return
Sexton: Ready for return
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney are among Ireland's front-liners set to return to action against Wales on Saturday week as Joe Schmidt continues to work towards his final 31-man squad.

The return fixture with Warren Gatland's side is the last game before the August 31 deadline to submit the panel to World Rugby and, with a host of big names yet to see any action in the warm-up games, there is an inevitability about certain selections.

Devin Toner, Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, Sean O'Brien and Jared Payne got game-time against Scotland, but with Gatland set to name a full-strength team for the Aviva Stadium clash, Schmidt has indicated he will follow suit.

"There's some players who haven't played yet who will be playing," he said as he reported a clean bill of health after beating Scotland.

"There must be at least half a dozen of them who are likely to get a hit-out unless they need a hit-out somewhere else because they're coming back from injury.

"But most of them are fully fit and we'll see them, and we'll see a few other guys who have played in these last two weeks get a hit-out as well.

"The players, as time gets closer, there's a fair bit of anxiety. They want to be picked, because they know that every opportunity is really important.

"Those guys who haven't played yet will be very keen to get out there. They'll be imperfect because they haven't had a hit-out yet, but hopefully we can improve from Wales to England, and then Canada will be in front of us very quickly."

The coach will release a number of his players to their provinces this week, with Munster taking on Connacht and Ulster hosting Leinster on Friday. Those in need of game-time will be given the opportunity.

"We'll look at the (Scotland) performances and then try and fit a few round pegs into round holes and if there is the odd square peg maybe we might have to mix and match what we do with those guys," Schmidt explained.

"We will have a good analysis of that game, then the coaches will get back together and try to nut out a little bit further down the track.

"We will probably start with who will play against Wales, so there is that squad of 23 and then (we decide) who else we need to make sure we have. I'm not sure what that number is at the moment.

"If there are a number of guys that we think are better off going back and getting a bit of time with their provinces, then they may do that and the other guys will come in and train with us, but we need to maintain a good level of training and need a good number to support the team that are preparing for Wales in two weeks."

The outside back conundrum remains the most complex for Schmidt, with the Scotland game doing little to clarify matters.

Simon Zebo demonstrated an ability to cover full-back to go with his impressive cameo on the wing last week, while Dave Kearney arguably outshone both starters with his scintillating break in the build-up to Zebo's try.

With Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls having impressed last weekend and Felix Jones and Fergus McFadden doing little wrong at the Millennium Stadium, there is plenty for the coach to consider, and selection against Wales will be fascinating.

"Simon has to be (considered a viable full-back), you've got to have guys who are a bit versatile," he said. "I know that Dave has played a fair bit there, we have Rob Kearney and Felix who has a little bit of form with us on the wing.

"Tommy is getting back into the rhythm, he had a little bit of a stilted pre-season, so that's why he's in the team a little bit later and he was involved in a few quite-good moments, but Dave came on and hit that line in the build-up to the third try and made a couple of good tackles.

"So, I don't think they're making it easy for me and I don't think they're making it easy for each other. They all want to be there and that's a luxury for us and exactly the kind of headache we want."

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