IRELAND GO INTO the Six Nations without two of the most reliable, and deadly, wingers.
Between Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls, the wide men have played 42 Six Nations games and scored 18 tries. Bowe, who contributed 14 of those scores, is hopeful of a later inclusion in Joe Schmidt’s squad but medial ligament damage means Earls will not feature at all.
The loss of a couple of mainstays should, one would presume, have Ireland at panic stations but that is not the case. Schmidt will face the tough task this week of pairing six surnames to two starting slots on his right and left flanks. Of the four men who will miss out on the starting XV to face the Scots, only one may make it onto the bench.
At present, Schmidt has Dave Kearney, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden at his disposal. McFadden and Gilroy got Wolfhounds starts with Zebo sent on for the final 30 minutes. The heavy pitch and tricky conditions will have done the Leinster and Ulster wingers no favours while Zebo was lively.
Schmidt, and defence coach Les Kiss, will have their favourites going into training this week. The recent diagnosis for Earls means there is scope for an outsider to force his way into the reckoning.
Zebo, who found himself on the outside looking in as recently as 14 January, delivered a try-scoring, imperious cameo of the bench in Munster’s win over Edinburgh. The Cork native looks set to duke it out with Luke Fitzgerald for a start out left. Fitzgerald has been Leinster’s best back this season and was in fine provincial form against Ospreys. Try-scoring has been his major flaw at international level but his hat-trick away to Northampton in December proved he still knows where the whitewash is.
Luke Fitzgerald gives Andrew Trimble a lift in training last November. INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Over on the right wing and it looks to be a straight decision between McFadden and Kearney. McFadden told TheScore.ie last November “I’m definitely a winger” but may well be behind Leinster teammate Kearney after missing out on some big matches with a broken hand. Kearney stood up well to the All Blacks and has featured in four testing Heineken Cup games but has not scored since his double against Samoa over three months ago.
Trimble has been brilliant for Ulster, again, this season but will have to be scorching it up on the Carton House training pitches to have even a glimpse of a starting role against the Scots. Gilroy dotted down against the Scots at Murrayfield last season and was a glowing ember in the final months of Declan Kidney’s reign but finds himself a few places down the pecking order.
Schmidt is likely to go with Fitzgerald and Kearney — two men he knows well from his Leinster days — but will be sorely tempted to pitch Zebo in from the start. If Schmidt goes for Paddy Jackson as back-up out-half then McFadden’s versatility may confirm his spot on the bench.
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