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Big call for Schmidt to make at openside with Leavy offering 'X-factor'

Sean O’Brien’s experience is tempting after Josh van der Flier was ruled out.

A KEY PART of last year’s Grand Slam-winning team, there’s no doubt Ireland have missed the abrasive, dynamic and skillful presence of Dan Leavy so far in 2019.

Joe Schmidt has several other quality options at openside flanker, with Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier having worn the seven shirt in the current Six Nations, but Leavy’s return to the Ireland squad this week has many Ireland fans excited.

24-year-old Leavy hasn’t played a game of rugby since 22 December due to a calf issue but he could be available for Saturday’s clash in Cardiff.

Ireland’s  Dan Leavy celebrates after the match Leavy hasn't played a game in 2019 yet. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

With Josh van der Flier ruled due to a groin injury, O’Brien and Jordi Murphy are the other openside possibilities, unless Schmidt opts to continue with the back row of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Jack Conan that finished last weekend’s win over France, when Stander moved to openside after van der Flier departed.

Whether Ireland are willing to bring in a player with so little rugby under his belt remains to be seen, but Schmidt and his coaching staff are well aware of the ability Leavy brings to the party – and included him in their training camp in Belfast two weeks ago.

“No disrespect to who’s been playing in that position while he’s been away, it’s a difficult one to answer because you’re speaking to what Seany and Josh have done, but Dan brings a similar approach to those guys; he’s mobile, he’s physical at the ball, he’s a bit of a pest when he plays,” said assistant coach Greg Feek.

“Each guy has his strengths and with Dan, he certainly does have them and I feel for him a bit. He’s been frustrated getting over a little niggle and sometimes getting that right is his priority. He’s got some X-factor there that would be handy to have.”

However, Feek stressed that it would be “a tight call” for Leavy to come straight back into the matchday squad without having played at all for over two months.

“This is just my own point of view, which you can take with a grain of salt, but I actually haven’t seen him being able to do it and there’s always a bit of risk in that,” said Feek when asked if Leavy is the kind of player who can hit the ground running after injury.

“But I know that the training programme that our S&C and medical staff have him on, some guys had a week off against Italy and came back and performed really well against France.

“So, it’s a tough one because you get confidence out of our systems we have around physical fitness and coming back from injuries and that. I do think he’s close.”

Sean O'Brien O'Brien has had two starts in this Six Nations. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Perhaps the more obvious choice for Ireland at openside would be 55-times capped O’Brien.

The Leinster flanker was not at his best in round three against Italy – having had a good game against Scotland two weekends before – and was omitted from the matchday squad altogether versus France.

With O’Brien smarting from being left out against the French, Schmidt may feel that bringing him back in from the cold will ensure a big performance, while the Tullow man’s experience might be important in what will be a booming atmosphere in Cardiff.

“The thing is with a lot of guys when you’ve been out injured for a while, it’s getting a run of games that’s probably the key,” said Feek of O’Brien’s form.

“It’s really hard sometimes to replicate a game of rugby without doing it. Sean would probably admit that as well, that he would love to get more game time.

“He’s probably just a factor off where he’d like to be. The problem is he sets such a high bar in terms of what he has done that he’s probably expecting a bit more. But I don’t think he’s been too bad.”

One man that many Irish supporters are hopeful of seeing involved in Wales is Tadhg Beirne, the Munster lock who is still uncapped in the Six Nations.

Beirne missed the opening two rounds with a knee injury before playing for Munster on the weekend Ireland beat Italy, then missing out on selection against France.

Tadhg Beirne Beirne has four caps for Ireland so far. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“For a physical man like him, he hasn’t played a hell of a lot,” said Feek. “Getting through some work, getting through the high-intensity trainings and seeing how he comes through that.

“These decisions aren’t made lightly and, yes, his form has been really good. He’s been in top form when he’s played for Munster, particularly this year.

“He played some cracking games but we have to make sure, going back to the Sean O’Brien thing, that we feel like we’re ready and we’re giving them justice that they do get an opportunity when they play.

“Not just throwing them out there and going, ‘Ok, he’s played well, let’s go.’ If he was carrying something, you want to make sure that that’s all clear, that he gets a good hit under his belt and then he can perform at the level required.

“There’s a lot of science that goes into it as well, we have everything tracked and data-ed, so we work closely with Pearse [O’Doherty], our GPS man, and [head of S&C] Jason [Cowman] and the medics.

“Then our own views around are they staying in the system, are they working continuously, not backing off.

“He’s been asked and all the guys are pushed really hard to make sure that we train as we play. That’s really important to prepare yourself for a Test match and I think for Tadhg that’s been a good lesson.”

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Murray Kinsella

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