WHILE THE INJURIES to Dave Kilcoyne and Jacob Stockdale were a cause for concern for Joe Schmidt over the weekend, the Ireland coach could reflect on his squad being relatively healthy as they filtered into camp last night.
His Munster contingent arrived later than planned due to the delayed kick-off against Castres at Thomond Park, but they would have brought confidence and momentum with them too after their dismantling of the French side.
Kilcoyne looks a doubt for the start of the Six Nations at least, having left Thomond Park on crutches, but the rest of the 36-man squad Schmidt named last week appear to be healthy, with Les Kiss stating that exciting wing Stockdale should be fine.
Ireland set off for sunny Spain today, with Schmidt opting to take his squad away for a pre-Six Nations warm weather training camp for the first time in his tenure.
It makes sense on a number of levels – allowing Ireland to train without the weather being such a big factor, getting them away from the media attention that comes on home shores, and simply giving the players a chance to escape the dark and cold.
Not that spirits will be too low among Schmidt’s squad.
Ulster’s disappointing season continued as they fell short against Wasps yesterday, although the Ireland head coach will have noted that his captain Rory Best, as well as starting lock Iain Henderson, led the fight impressively, if in vain.
But the large Leinster contingent will have arrived in before today’s travel brimming with belief, having completed a clean sweep of their pool.
Key man Johnny Sexton even got the weekend off to allow his body to freshen up ahead of the trip to Paris on 3 February, while James Ryan returned in the second row against Montpellier to show his promising class.
Jordan Larmour was intriguingly repositioned to the right wing, where it would seem a debut for Ireland in the upcoming championship is more likely than at fullback, and showed that his defensive game continues to improve as he handled Nemani Nadolo well overall.
Established Ireland internationals like Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Jack Conan, Robbie Henshaw, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney are all in fine form, while Joey Carbery returned to action after his stint out with a fractured arm.
The Leinster flanker trio of Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy – one of whom seems set to replace the missing Sean O’Brien in Ireland’s starting back row – are all tracking nicely as well.
Schmidt will surely have been excited by the form of Keith Earls with Munster over recent weeks too, with the 30-year-old currently playing some of the best rugby of his provincial career.
Happy and healthy off the pitch, Earls has been a real leader for Munster and his thrilling counter-attacking quality and confidence are standing out. Schmidt was often deprived of Earls’ talents through injury early in his reign, but Earls has essentially been a key player whenever available. That looks certain to continue.
Conor Murray’s close-range try-scoring has stepped up to another level again, while Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander can be counted on to show up aggressively for Ireland every time.
John Ryan has been second-choice behind Stephen Archer with Munster often this season, but Schmidt already knows and trusts the tighthead at Test level. Leinster’s barnstorming Andrew Porter is a fine option in that position too. In Munster’s backline, Chris Farrell, Andrew Conway and Ian Keatley have all been sharp.
Connacht’s four-man group will also have reported in for Ireland duty last night in a happy place, after securing a home quarter-final in the Challenge Cup in style against Oyonnax.
Kieran Marmion will be up for the battle with Leinster’s in-form Luke McGrath in Ireland camp, but for now one senses that the Connacht man remains second in the scrum-half pecking order. Bundee Aki’s power will be important in Paris.
Ultan Dillane, having missed the summer to the US and Japan through injury has hit new heights and looks as explosive as he ever has, while the much-maligned Quinn Roux has been hammering rucks and remains an excellent set-piece operator.
The issue of the second row is an interesting one and another huge performance from Tadhg Beirne for the Scarlets as they beat Toulon to ensure a home Champions Cup quarter-final led to more questions about why he is not involved.
Naturally, this kind of form doesn’t go under the radar for Schmidt. With Beirne having committed to returning to Ireland to join Munster this summer, he was certainly in the Ireland coach’s selection thoughts for the Six Nations.
However, Beirne has played a huge number of minutes for the Scarlets this season – over 1,300 of them and quite a large number of them in the back row – and had long been due a 10-day rest period after that clash with Toulon on Saturday night.
Beirne would also have to be released from Ireland camp for the Scarlets’ two Pro14 clashes with Leinster on 17 February and 3 March, given that they do not clash with Six Nations fixtures, which would mean he would have missed Ireland’s mini-camps in Athlone and Dublin those weeks.
Given those apparent factors, it appears Schmidt will wait to integrate Beirne into his squad rather than pushing him to the limit in terms of his physical load. Continuing his good form for the Scarlets before his move to Munster seems to be the priority.
The 26-year-old will have to wait for now but it does seem certain that a call-up will arrive somewhere down the line, perhaps even this summer in Australia.
Ireland are well stocked in the second row for now, and well stocked pretty much everywhere else on the pitch too.
Demanding tests of their quality lie ahead but, as they get through their hard work in Spain, there must be an optimistic vibe among Schmidt’s squad.
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