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Schmidt's Ireland blow off the cobwebs with high-intensity session against the U20s

This morning’s open session rounded off a mini-camp in the Midlands ahead of the visit of Wales.

Ryan Bailey reports from Dubarry Park

IT’S NOT OFTEN you get to observe an Ireland squad session in its entirety, and while a high-intensity hit-out against the U20s was designed to blow off the cobwebs more than anything, it did provide an interesting insight into preparations for Wales.

Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt arrives at Dubarry Park earlier. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The 10-minute vision access window usually afforded to the media yields little more than colourful shots of players warming-up and throwing a ball to each other, but this morning’s session was particularly informative.

Firstly, which players were there and, more significantly, which players weren’t.

A squad of 20 players concluded this week’s mini-camp in the Midlands with an open session at the home of Buccaneers RFC in Athlone, but Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong noticeably worked away from the main group.

Both Henderson and Furlong suffered hamstring problems during last week’s win over Italy and spent time with one of the IRFU medical staff working on short and sharp movements.

Afterwards, Joe Schmidt reported both are progressing well in their rehab and are on course to be fit for Wales on Saturday week. The same was said about James Ryan, who sat out the session completely due to a groin issue.

The starting XV from that win over Italy were joined in Dubarry Park by Joey Carbery, Jordi Murphy, Cian Healy, Fergus McFadden and Niall Scannell, who was involved having missed both of the opening Six Nations games.

Chris Farrell, meanwhile, slotted in alongside Bundee Aki in the Ireland midfield for the end-of-session game against Noel McNamara’s U20s side, an exercise which has traditionally proved very useful for both teams.

The disappointment for the 3,000 locals, who turned out in force despite the mix of sun, sleet and snow, was the absence of Robbie Henshaw, whose picture adorned many of the walls inside the Buccaneers clubhouse.

Farrell is set to deputise for Henshaw against Warren Gatland’s side in round three after Schmidt confirmed the Leinster centre is now facing three to four months out with the shoulder injury he sustained against the Azzurri.

Rotten luck for Henshaw, but an opportunity for Farrell and maybe Garry Ringrose, who is likely to come into camp at Carton House at some stage next week but is looking increasingly unlikely to feature against Wales.

Keith Earls Keith Earls was one of 20 players who trained this morning. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

For Schmidt, this week has been about trying out different combinations with Henshaw joining Jamie Heaslip, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien, Tommy O’Donnell and Jared Payne on the injured list.

“At least we’ve got a bit of time and we can get a little bit of preparation done with combinations,” the Ireland head coach said. “That may extend to a couple of guys coming in next week to build a bit of depth in a couple of positions as well.”

With the three players who were absent from training today set to be back for Wales, the main area of concern for Schmidt is midfield, with the Kiwi reminding the media that he is now down to his fourth-choice pairing.

Payne’s absence since the Lions tour, coupled with the injuries to Henshaw and Ringrose, means Ireland’s midfield depth is being stretched.

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“It’s a huge test,” Schmidt continued.

“I think people have gone past Jared Payne, who the last time we won the Six Nations played the whole time at 13 and was unbelievably good for us. He was one of the guys we lost in the [2015] World Cup.

“Now we’re down a third centre so if you look at the strength in-depth, we’re down to our fourth centre. It’s a great test for us. There has been a lot of focus on players other teams didn’t have but we’re always excited about who we do have and focus on who we do have.

“There was a lot of glossing over the 12 guys we had unavailable but at the same time there was a lot of excitement about people saying we were in really good shape. If we can keep people positive despite losing Josh van der Flier on top of not having Jamie Heaslip Sean O’Brien and Tommy O’Donnell, I think we’re in a pretty good place.

“I think we’ll all be watching against Wales and find out a little bit.”

Before preparations intensify for the visit of Warren Gatland’s side to the Aviva Stadium on 24 February, Schmidt’s squad will now disperse for a couple of days before reconvening in Carton House on Sunday evening.

This two-day camp in Athlone has been an important part of that preparation process with more emphasis placed on recovery and off-field work, before this morning’s useful workout in front of a crowd primarily made up of school children on mid-term.

Conor Murray Conor Murray poses with young fans after the session. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There was an obvious intensity to proceedings with the U20s squad eager to show what they could do in front of Schmidt and the senior players, making for a lively and high-tempo training match.

“The first thing is that it’s an investment in our U20s side, of which over the last few years James Ryan and Andrew Porter have come through,” Schmidt said, underlining its value.

“Recently Dan Leavy and Joey Carbery aren’t that far out of the 20s so we have those sorts of players who are coming through. The first thing is we get to identify them, we have a bit of lunch with them and get the opportunity to get to know them a bit better.

“We’re made to work pretty hard, they’re young, they’re fit and they move the ball around quickly. It’s non-contact mostly so we can’t try and bully them.

“It’s a really good hit-out for us. You would have seen there’s energy out there from the start.”

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Henderson, Ryan and Furlong on course to be fit for Wales after missing training

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Ryan Bailey

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