Thursday 18 January 2018

Joe Schmidt hopeful about Rob Kearney's fitness as pressure mounts

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rob Kearney is Ireland's major injury worry ahead of Sunday's Pool D clash with Italy after the Louth full-back injured his glute muscle when scoring his side's fifth try against Romania at Wembley.

Joe Schmidt remains hopeful that the "jarred" muscle is not too serious as he contemplates the first proper test of the tournament for his side against the Azzurri who escaped from the clutches of a disastrous defeat to lowly Canada on Saturday.

Aside from his first-choice full-back and the return to training of Robbie Henshaw, the coach's chief concern is whether his team will respond to the pressure when Sergio Parisse returns to lead his side at the Olympic Stadium next weekend.

An opening-day defeat to France means the Italians will be in the last-chance saloon and Schmidt believes they'll be dangerous.

And he hopes that two dominant performances haven't softened them as the standard increases and the pressure comes on.

"Across the board, I think they present on paper and on the pitch a more formidable challenge than we've had so far," he said after last night's win.

"One of the risks is that, having worked our way through two reasonably one-sided games, there's always a risk that, when the pressure comes on and we maybe haven't been put in that position... I'm sure that's what Jacques Brunel is going to chat to his players about; to put us under that pressure and to see how we respond.

"Where we've been able to exert the pressure more often than not in the two games we've had so far."

Kearney replaced Keith Earls twice during the game. First as the man of the match went off for a head injury assessment (HIA) and, again, after he'd returned.

He raced on to Simon Zebo's pass to score his second try of the tournament, but couldn't continue after jarring his upper leg muscles.

"Rob was involved in a high-speed play immediately after coming onto the pitch," Schmidt explained.

"In scoring the try, he's just jarred himself up a little bit. We hope it's not too much. I guess the next 24 to 48 hours will tell whether he's done anything that would be telling for next week.

"We would hope at this stage that he's OK.

"Keith Earls was fine. He passed his HIA. He was put back on the field. The plan was to replace him with Rob Kearney with 20 minutes to go so. Again, Keith should be fine.

"It's through his glute and his hip really. It might have happened when his knee hit the ground or it might have just been in the acceleration that he felt he jarred himself up a bit.

"We'll be able to give you a better picture either tomorrow or Tuesday, but at the moment, he's just icing his glute and hopefully he's going to be OK."

Asked if he expected to have a full deck to choose from next week, Schmidt said: "As far as I know at the moment. Things are only just being iced at the moment. If we feel someone needs a picture taken, there's nothing planned at the moment to do that at the moment. So fingers crossed."

Schmidt has used 30 of his 31 players in two big wins and hopes to bring Robbie Henshaw into the equation this week.

Toughest

Now, he faces arguably the toughest selection of his time in charge as he contemplates who to play against the Italians.

In particular, the back three will take a lot of consideration after Zebo, Earls and Tommy Bowe all put their hands up with strong displays.

"It was great as were the overall performances and you don't want to knock a player who has demonstrated form today or last week because it is hard to match it up (the two games)," he said.

"There are people who are playing in the back three, I think that Keith has obviously played really well both weeks.

"We also have guys play in midfield who can play in that back three so it might even impact on midfield selection as well, particularly as we have a few conundrums there.

"You know across the back line and it has given us a few challenges. It is a luxury at the moment. One of the things that may decide it is who is fit to train Tuesday and Wednesday, because we do feel we get better momentum into games when we have guys fully available to train for that front half of the week."

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