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Schmidt to watch Pro12 semis closely with South Africa tour looming

The Ireland head coach is set to announce his squad next week before the Pro12 final.

JOE SCHMIDT WILL be watching closely as three of the Irish provinces compete in the semi-finals of the Guinness Pro12 this weekend, with the Ireland head coach set to name his squad to travel to South Africa next week.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt is close to make his final decisions. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Schmidt is expected to announce a squad of 30 or 32 players on Wednesday, with the final number possibly depending on the physical status of players in key positions.

Sean O’Brien, Tommy Bowe and Josh van der Flier have been ruled out of the tour through injury already, while there are major doubts surrounding the fitness of the likes of Cian Healy, Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney.

While there will be calls for experimentation next month on the three-Test tour, it does appear likely that Schmidt will largely stick with players he views and tried-and-trusted for the trip to South Africa.

“There is no perfect answer because you have only got 10 to 12 Test matches per year, that’s not a lot of 80 minutes when there is always massive pressure to win them,” said Schmidt back in March when asked if there would be temptation to experiment.

“There is a massive pressure to try and get a win in South Africa.”

Nonetheless, injuries – of which there will hopefully not be any more in the coming weeks – mean Schmidt does have a few openings in his squad.

With that in mind, we look at some of the Irish players in action this weekend who may be of particular interest to Schmidt. Munster’s players face the agonising prospect of watching on from the couch, their season having ended without a play-off fixture.

Connacht

The story of the Irish rugby season, Connacht have been vocal about their desire to see increased representation in the national squad.

Ultan Dillane Dillane is set to continue his impressive start to Test rugby. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Existing Ireland internationals Kieran MarmionFinlay BealhamRobbie Henshaw [his Leinster deal begins in July] and Ultan Dillane all appear set to travel, although Nathan White is rated as “unlikely” to be fit next month by Pat Lam. That Denis Buckley‘s season is over is a shame.

Fullback Tiernan O’Halloran has been consistently excellent for the westerners this season and with Zebo and Kearney struggling, will be eyeing an Ireland call-up.

Similarly, injuries in the back row could see former Ireland U20 Sean O’Brien come into contention after his excellent season. Kiwi native Jake Heenan does not qualify for Ireland until late June and is instead targeting the November Tests.

Number eight Eoin McKeon has suggested that if he played for another province he may have had an international opportunity already. 32-year-old Ireland-qualified Aly Muldowney has been one of the best players in the Pro12 this season, but his age and imminent departure to Grenoble make him an unlikely selection.

Perhaps more likely is an inclusion for Quinn Roux, who Schmidt originally brought to Leinster. The South African was part of Ireland’s 44-man training squad last month.

While Marmion has been excellent in the nine shirt for Connacht all season, John Cooney has impressed in the back-up role and has worked with Schmidt before, even coming off the bench in Leinster’s 2012 Heineken Cup final win over Ulster.

Out wide, Matt Healy has been making his case all season and has featured in Ireland training camps twice now. He continues to search for consistency in his performances, but his attacking prowess must be considered.

Ulster

The fullback situation for Ireland means the vast majority of supporters may finally get their wish in seeing Jared Payne at fullback, where he has been so superb for Ulster in recent times.

Jared Payne, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls A move to fullback could finally be on the cards for Payne with Ireland. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Any such shift would also open up space in the midfield, meaning an opportunity for Stuart McCloskey to win a second cap. Provincial teammates Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding - who Schmidt rates so highly – may well provide depth in the centre.

On the wing, Craig Gilroy remains a lethal attacking weapon, though Schmidt doesn’t appear to have always been convinced by his all-round game. A dominant performance against Leinster tomorrow would aid his cause.

Rory BestIain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, and Andrew Trimble all appear certain to travel with Ireland, while the injuries to O’Brien and van der Flier boost Chris Henry‘s prospects after he was not named in the last month’s 44-man training squad.

Leinster

The searing hype around Garry Ringrose has fallen away in the second half of this season and the player himself most probably welcomes that development.

He has continued to be impressive for Leinster with his exceptional footwork and rugby intelligence, attributes Schmidt is well aware of. Whether those skills mean the 21-year-old is ready to face the Boks remains up for debate and Schmidt may well opt for more experienced midfielders.

Ireland’s Luke McGrath Luke McGrath trained with Ireland last month.

Luke McGrath must be cursing the fact that he is on the bench behind Eoin Reddan tomorrow, particularly after an excellent opening half to the season.

Again, inexperience might count against him this summer with Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion and Reddan options at scrum-half.

In terms of back rows, the loss of two opensides has opened the door for Jordi Murphy to re-ignite his international involvement and a big display in the seven shirt against Ulster would be a fine starting point.

Mick Kearney has been one of Leinster’s better forwards in recent times, although the likes of Devin Toner, Henderson, Dillane, Roux and Donnacha Ryan – who played for Munster A today – would consider themselves ahead in the pecking order.

Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Johnny SextonJack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Tadhg Furlong, Rhys Ruddock, Jamie Heaslip and Sean Cronin are among the safe bets to travel.

It will be interesting to note what happens with Ian Madigan, who is set for a move abroad with Bordeaux next season.

Schmidt deeply values his versatility, but the suggestion from the IRFU has been that Madigan might suffer by leaving these shores. Whether that applies to next month remains to be seen.

Which players would you like to see Schmidt include? Munster youngsters Jack O’Donoghue, Niall Scannell and Rory Scannell have been among their best performers – should they travel to South Africa?

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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