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Kearney injury may open door for McCloskey to continue in midfield

With the Leinster man struggling with injury, Jared Payne is a strong option at fullback.

DOES ROB KEARNEY’S latest hamstring issue mean the vast majority of Irish rugby supporters are going to get what they’ve been calling for since before this Six Nations even began?

The form of Stuart McCloskey in midfield with Ulster had seen clamour grow for the 23-year-old to be installed in Ireland’s XV for the beginning of the championship, while Jared Payne’s two appearances at 15 for the province had brought about some excitement that the 30-year-old might be shifted to the back at Test level too.

Jared Payne Payne at fullback would be exciting for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

As it transpired, Joe Schmidt opted not to break up the Payne-Robbie Henshaw combination in the centres until the former was ruled out of the England fixture through injury.

Two weekends later, it’s at fullback where Schmidt has an injury doubt, with Kearney taking no part in Ireland’s training session at Carton House yesterday. Payne is fit again, so there appears to be a popular decision to be made.

Firstly, the latest hamstring problem for Kearney is a concern, given that he has struggled with this hamstring/back area for some time now.

The Leinster man himself has admitted his form is not where it has been in the past, and the intermittently occurring problems with this injury have definitely not helped. The 29-year-old missed the opening game of this championship due to the same issues.

Oddly, Ireland seemed to have a lack of information on the latest Kearney injury at yesterday’s press conference. Assistant coach Greg Feek fronted the media, but could provide very little in the way of detail.

“It’s kind of like having kids, you always worry about them,” joked Feek when asked if Kearney’s recurring hamstring issues were a concern. “You always worry about your backs, you know what I mean? That never stops.

“But I don’t want to throw out random comments about Rob himself. Hopefully we’ll find out exactly what’s going on on Thursday with him.”

Kearney still provides the best defensive and aerial game of any of Ireland’s fullback options, meaning Schmidt picked him to start against France and England.

Simon Zebo Zebo has been Ireland's second-choice fullback for some time. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The Louth man covers the backfield intelligently, fields high ball expertly, communicates well and possesses a booming left boot. His ball-carrying, while not elusive, is strong and his presentation is usually clean. At ruck time, Kearney delivers more often than not.

For many commentators and pundits of the armchair variety, those attributes are not what a fullback should be selected for. What about the attack?

Kearney has not been as strong in this area as in years gone by. His alignment at 15 has often seen him too tight to his outside centre, sometimes depriving Ireland of the ability to stretch the opposition defensive line or change the picture for them at a late stage.

Contrast came with Simon Zebo’s performance against Wales on the opening day of the championship, when the Cork man’s agility, acceleration and vision allowed him to run some excellent lines off Johnny Sexton that truly stressed Shaun Edwards’ defence.

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It’s easy to imagine Payne doing something similar, perhaps even more effectively, when afforded the space and time that the fullback role provides. Few players on this island see space as well as Payne does, or intuitively understand where it will appear even before it’s obvious to the more uneducated eye.

If Kearney is indeed ruled out of this weekend’s meeting with Italy, the most obvious choice for Schmidt at 15 is Zebo. The Munster man has established himself as number two in the pecking order, but that was before McCloskey’s debut against England.

The Ulster centre was not outstanding in London, but he showed enough ability to underline that he can cope and possibly thrive in Test rugby. Immediately ditching him doesn’t quite make sense, particularly with Payne having extensive experience at fullback.

Schmidt has been loath to break up the Payne-Henshaw pairing in which he has invested so much time, but the opportunities for McCloskey after this weekend’s game look a little thin on the ground.

Stuart McCloskey McCloskey needs more Test experience. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It seems likely that Henshaw and Payne will pair up in midfield for this summer’s tour to South Africa, but what if one of them is injured before then? Unless McCloskey gets another chance this weekend, he might take on the Boks with just 80 minutes of Test rugby under his belt.

In reality, the obvious Schmidt selection if Kearney is unavailable is that Payne returns at 13, Henshaw moves back into 12 and Zebo wears the 15 shirt.

That is a high quality trio outside Sexton, of course, and it would be hard to argue with as Ireland seek their first win of the championship. Part of Schmidt’s job, however, is to ensure that depth is strong, and another outing for McCloskey would contribute to that.

One of the regrets of Schmidt’s tenure selection-wise must be picking Ian Keatley to start at out-half against Italy in last year’s Six Nations. Come World Cup time and Sexton’s injury for the quarter-final, Schmidt was lamenting Ian Madigan’s lack of experience.

Surely 80 minutes against Italy in Rome in that same calendar year would have helped in some way?

Schmidt and his coaches will underline all week the importance of winning the fixture in front of them, and therefore the need to pick their strongest available side, but a midfield pairing of McCloskey and Henshaw, with Payne at fullback, could be part of exactly that.

Perhaps moving Payne to fullback at this point will be seen as an utterly short-term move by Schmidt, one that does not serve his team at this point.

That said, there is also the possibility that Payne moving to 15 and McCloskey growing into Test rugby makes Ireland a far better team. Sometimes uncontrollable circumstances that alter best-made plans can leave you with an improved end product.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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