It’s difficult to judge exactly how Joe Schmidt is going to treat the clash with Italy in the Six Nations on the 8th of March. Does he rest key men and give a handful of young hopefuls a starting chance?
Or is he better off allowing his front-line players to target a win before looking ahead to the trip to Paris? It will be intriguing to find out, but if Schmidt is to make changes to the XV, here are the men who have a chance to impress him in the Pro12 this weekend.
Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan
Even if Jonny Sexton recovers from his thumb injury, the Italy fixture might be the right time to give one of the pretenders to the out-half throne a chance to show what they can do. With that in mind, Schmidt will be watching Jackson and Madigan closely.
The Leinster man leads his team against an ambitious Glasgow Warriors side and will hope that the game allows him to demonstrate his creative abilities. Perhaps more importantly, Madigan needs to manage the game well in a tactical sense.
For Jackson, picking up where he left off with Ulster will be the key, although it might actually be a negative for him that Ruan Pienaar starts inside him. The 22-year-old could do with an opportunity to show that he doesn’t always need the South African’s influence to guide him.
Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo
In Twickenham, Ireland looked to be lacking the spark of flair and creative running that can break open a game in a split second. While Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney are performing well and getting through a vast amount of work, there may be an opening for one of Fitzgerald, Bowe or Zebo yet.
Schmidt himself appeared to rule Bowe out of the picture this week, but would he ignore a superb outing from the Ulsterman? Meanwhile, Zebo shifts to fullback from Munster, but that may just allow him to show off his attacking skills even more.
Fitzgerald is the most interesting case of all. The Leinster wing was perhaps the most in-form back in the country heading into the Six Nations before that cruelly-timed abdominal injury. Can he hit those heights tomorrow against Glasgow?
The 22-year-old put in a powerful display against Scotland on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, before the experienced Gordon D’Arcy came back in to nail down the 12 shirt.
However, the Ulster centre’s explosive ball carrying threat may be ideally suited to taking on the Italians, particularly after Ireland failed to get over the gainline at times against England.
Robbie Henshaw and Fergus McFadden
The hope before this Six Nations tournament would have been for Henshaw to get a taste of action off the bench, or even in the starting team. His excellent performance for the Ireland Wolfhounds in January showed that he can step up physically.
Meanwhile, McFadden has played a peripheral role in the opening three games, being brought on in the second half in each. He is a favourite of Schmidt’s for his high work rate and ability to make yards in contact.
Henshaw is at 15 for Connacht tomorrow, while McFadden starts at 13 for Leinster. Schmidt surely won’t bench Brian O’Driscoll for his final home game, but these two represent options.
Iain Henderson and Donnacha Ryan
Henderson seems like the prototype substitute option for Ireland now, thanks to his energy, explosive strength and ability to cover at blindside flanker if needed. If managed in the right manner, the 22-year-old could eventually become world-class.
Ryan’s return to fitness presents Schmidt with another interesting option behind first-choice second rows Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell though. The Munster man can also shift to 6 if needs be, and adds real aggression to any team he plays in.
Tommy O’Donnell, Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock
Ireland’s back row has performed excellently overall in the Six Nations so far, but the clash against Italy might be the occasion on which to mix things up and offer another candidate the chance to impress.
O’Donnell and Murphy are both extremely capable ball carriers, and have had time off the bench over the course of the last three games. With Peter O’Mahony’s hamstring still on the mend, their performances this weekend may decide who starts on the 8th of March.
Rhys Ruddock represents a strong contender for the blindside flanker position too, thanks to his consistently powerful form for Leinster this season. His captaincy of the Ireland Wolfhounds was also a strong indicator of the esteem in which he is held by Schmidt.
Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Martin Moore
The Leinster trio are back with their province and the Glasgow front row won’t be too excited by the prospect of dealing with their pent-up energy after sitting on the bench for Ireland in recent weeks.
Moore has been particularly impressive as a replacement for Schmidt’s side, while McGrath continues to improve every time he plays. Cronin offers a ball carrying ability that Rory Best simply doesn’t have.
A dominant performance against the Warriors might be enough to convince Schmidt that one [or even two] of them is ready for the starting XV against Italy.
The 33-year-old offers something slightly different to Conor Murray with his lightning quick delivery from the base of the ruck. If Schmidt is looking to boost the tempo of the Italian encounter around the 55 minute mark, Reddan may be a more suitable bench option than Isaac Boss.
Who do you think has the best chance of working their way into the Ireland team to face the Italians? Who is missing from the list above? Let us know the changes you’d like to see for the round four tie…