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Schmidt with tight selection calls to make ahead of Six Nations opener

There is uncertainty over the back row, out-half, left wing, centres and tighthead prop.

Schmidt runs his players through training at Carton House today.
Schmidt runs his players through training at Carton House today.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

JOE SCHMIDT AND his Ireland coaching team found a secluded spot in Carton House last night and sat down for some intense discussions.

This was no bullet-point review of the day’s training, rather an extended debate around their selection options for Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Italy. Schmidt will have the final say of course, but there were arguments put forward from several vantage points.

Despite last year’s Six Nations title and a November clean sweep, there have been a number of close calls to be made in Ireland’s starting XV for this weekend.

That’s a good thing for the players,” says forwards coach Simon Easterby, “to know that there’s a lot of competition for places; you want players who are competing for the same position. We want them to make it difficult for us to make those calls.”

It seems sure that those calls have indeed already been made this week, even if Jamie Heaslip’s injury means ongoing uncertainty around the number eight position.

Sean O’Brien’s 50-minute outing against the England Saxons last Friday in Cork put the Leinster openside firmly in the selection mix, with Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy providing further options at openside flanker.

“He was good,” said Easterby of O’Brien. “I think in his own assessment, he blew up a little bit and you would do having not played a game of rugby for as long as he did.

Sean O'Brien O'Brien has put his hand up for selection at openside. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He’s a long time out of the game, but I think we all saw what he can be, the competitiveness of the man and he’s not a bad guy to have around the squad now.”

“Certainly having him in the mix for selection is something that’s a real positive, expecially after losing Chris Henry and Rhys Ruddock. Having Sean back to full fitness and back into the squad as well, it’s great to have him as a selection option.”

Ulsterman Iain Henderson was another who did “really well” for the Wolfhounds on Friday night, impressing in the second row, where Easterby admits Ireland are a “little bit tight” at present.

Henderson has earned a bench spot against the Italians, with Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell the likely starters in the locking department.

Meanwhile, Schmidt and his coaches will opt for one of Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley in the number 10 shirt with Johnny Sexton missing. The Leinster man got his chance to impress against the Saxons, and despite a turgid fixture, Easterby felt Madigan put his hand up.

“I think he did ok and he put himself on the front foot quite a bit,” said the former Scarlets coach. “England’s defence was fairly good and it came up quite hard, they were competitive at the breakdown.

Ian Madigan Madigan and Keatley are the out-half possibilities. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“At times we didn’t get that continuity we would have liked as a team. Mads did ok and, along with several other players, put their hands up for selection this weekend. That was part of the process: it was an opportunity to stake a claim this week.”

In midfield, Robbie Henshaw, Gordon D’Arcy, Darren Cave and Jared Payne have been vying for two spots, while the left wing is a battle between Simon Zebo, Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald.

Even at tighthead prop, the options are multiple for Schmidt, with Marty Moore, Mike Ross and Nathan White all possible starters.

“I think it’s an area that we feel we have a bit of depth there, with Marty coming back and Nathan coming back to full fitness,” agrees Easterby. “Rossy got through a really good workout against the Saxons and the scrum went well, we were happy with that.”

Easterby was keeping his cards firmly planted against his chest, however, and Ireland will not officially announce their team until Thursday at lunchtime.

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Murray Kinsella

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