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'He wouldn't let his country down': Friend backs Blade to earn Ireland call

The Connacht scrum-half has been in outstanding form for his province this season.

THE MISFORTUNE OF one player, can open the door for another and thus Caolin Blade — the in-form Connacht scrum-half — has suddenly been catapulted into contention for a first international call-up when Joe Schmidt announces his Six Nations squad on Wednesday afternoon. 

It could be argued Blade’s form for Connacht this season warrants his inclusion in Schmidt’s championship panel regardless of injuries to others, but the news McGrath is facing eight weeks on the sideline certainly boosts his chances of receiving the call.

Caolin Blade Blade trained with Connacht in Galway today. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

While no player would ever wish injury upon a fellow professional, Blade has already seized his opportunity in a Connacht jersey this season, stepping in for Kieran Marmion after he was forced to undergo ankle surgery following Ireland’s November win over the All Blacks.

And now a cruel setback for McGrath, coupled with the fact Marmion is still making his way back to full fitness and John Cooney’s struggle with back spasms, means 24-year-old Blade is very much a live option for Schmidt. 

Having featured in all 18 of Connacht’s games this term across both the Guinness Pro14 and Challenge Cup competitions, Blade has more than proved himself in the nine jersey, having developed as a player through the western province’s academy.

In Marmion’s absence, the Galway native has formed an excellent half-back partnership with Jack Carty, scoring tries in the Christmas inter-pros against Leinster and Ulster and has generally displayed all the credentials required to perform at international level on a consistent basis. 

A tenacious player with excellent defensive prowess, Blade’s sharp running game has stood out in recent months while his rugby intelligence and decision-making will no doubt have impressed Schmidt. 

“Bladey has been outstanding, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he does get a call-up,” Andy Friend said today. 

“I’ve only seen his football this year, but to me, he’s exactly what you want in a nine. He’s tough, he sees the game well, he’s quick, he’s got a great step, and his pass is very good. There’s a lot to like about him.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if he did get a call-up and if he did, I know he’d perform very well for his country.”

As a Connacht academy graduate, Blade’s inclusion in the Ireland squad — potentially joining the likes of Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane and another uncapped player in Tom Farrell — would be a major fillip for the province and the work being done at grassroots and underage level out west.

“It would be huge, huge for Connacht and huge for Caolin,” Friend agreed. “We’ll sit back and see what happens, but our fingers are crossed for him.

“It just gives everyone a spark. Everyone’s dream is to play for their country. I know at the start of the year when I sat down with every player individually and asked them what’s their ambition, and virtually to a man, it’s ‘I want to play for Ireland’. Or ‘I want to be a British and Irish Lion’, we have a lot of those blokes too.

Andy Friend Andy Friend during Tuesday's press conference. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That’s every young boy’s and girl’s dream when you’re a footballer and when someone achieves that, everyone is really proud for them.

“Listen if Caolin and Tom [Farrell] do get the call, that’s fantastic, we’ll be absolutely stoked for them and they wouldn’t let their country down.”

Either way, Friend says Blade is available for Connacht’s crucial Challenge Cup game away at Bordeaux on Saturday [KO 3pm], as the province bid to secure the result required to book their place in the quarter-finals.

After a 20-18 victory over Sale Sharks in Galway last weekend, Connacht travel to France level on points with the Premiership side at the top of Pool 3, knowing a fifth win of the pool stages would assure them of a place in the last eight. 

“There will be some changes,” the head coach added. “We haven’t really looked at all the permutations, all we know is that we need to go to Bordeaux and do the job. That’s a win, and ideally a bonus-point win and then we see what happens from there. That’s all our focus is at the minute and we’ll pick a team to go and get the win. 

Our thing this week is to know and play our role. It’s not about what Bordeaux, to be honest, it’s what we do. We need to know the job we need to do, we need to know what role we’ve all to play and we need to go and execute it. If we do that, the result will look after itself.

“We know there’s a quarter-final spot riding on this one, so it’s a huge game for us.” 

While Paul Boyle and Gavin Thornbury are available for the round six clash at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, Jack Carty is likely to be rested after starting each of the last four games, while also ‘copping a bang’ against Sale.

“He is okay,” Friend said. “He didn’t train today but is also a player who has got a fair bit of load under his belt at the moment, so we’re looking at potentially resting him.”

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Ryan Bailey

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