Schmidt's selection calls will be fascinating for 'massive' Scotland clash

Fullback, outside centre, right wing, the back row and second row are all of interest.

ROB KEARNEY IS among the most popular men in Ireland’s squad this morning and it’s not just because his backfield cover is strong.

The experienced fullback gifted a set of wireless headphones to all of his team-mates yesterday evening and it’s fair to say his efforts went down well in Carton House.

It remains to be seen how popular he is with Joe Schmidt when the Ireland head coach names his team to face Scotland on Thursday afternoon.

Ireland’s Rob Kearney celebrates after the game Kearney's skillset is tempting at 15. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The second round Six Nations clash in Edinburgh on Saturday presents Ireland with the opportunity to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat to England – their first home Six Nations loss under Schmidt – and there will be a number of intriguing selection calls.

Robbie Henshaw had a tough outing at fullback against England as he made his first Test start in the position since his Ireland debut back in 2013.

Eddie Jones’ team targeted him with their kicking game and Henshaw simply didn’t get the attacking opportunities to show his skillset. The temptation to reinstate Kearney to the 15 shirt is obvious – his experience, communication, backfield quality, aerial skill and proven big-game mentality could steady the ship.

But discarding Henshaw from the fullback slot after just one game, a game in which the entire team around him struggled, would surely dent his confidence and be an admission that the experiment was a failure.

Henshaw has the skills and personality to make a far better fist of playing at fullback, and would obviously benefit from an improved collective Irish performance enabling him to demonstrate his qualities in a position where he has craved opportunity.

That said, the decision for Schmidt could be more straightforward if Garry Ringrose’s hamstring injury rules him out of this weekend.

In that case, a midfield pairing of Bundee Aki and Henshaw could be the outcome, with Kearney slotting in at fullback. 

Munster’s Chris Farrell is another strong option in midfield, and his straight running, ball-carrying and distribution could help Ireland’s attack to do more damage this weekend.

Robbie Henshaw Henshaw would hope for another chance at 15. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

On the right wing, Keith Earls is another injury concern with a hip pointer – a bruise on the top of the hip bone – and that could open the door for Jordan Larmour to start in the 14 shirt, especially with Andrew Conway having returned to Munster with a calf issue.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton in the halfbacks will be expected to improve with more game time under their belts, while left wing Jacob Stockdale – still only 22 – will have learned plenty from last weekend’s defeat to England.

CJ Stander being ruled out for up to four weeks leaves Schmidt with a big call to confirm in the back row.

Jack Conan is the other ‘natural’ number eight in the squad and is desperate for the kind of opportunity on offer this weekend, while the influential Sean O’Brien could also cover at number eight.

With Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock also in the squad, Schmidt has back row options. The expectation, though, is that Conan or O’Brien will get the chance to take over from Stander.

Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony were not able to have game-defining impacts in the flanker positions versus the English, and it may even be that Schmidt shakes things up in his back row aside from the one injury-enforced change.

The locking situation is fascinating too, with Devin Toner a doubt due to the ankle injury he sustained against England.

With Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson also out injured, it leaves one of Connacht pair Ultan Dillane or Quinn Roux in line for a possible start this weekend against the Scots.

Devin Toner with England's Maro Itoje Devin Toner is an injury concern. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Schmidt added Billy Holland to his squad yesterday, but it has been a concern to see Ireland’s second row depth tested so early in the championship.

The front row of Cian Healy, captain Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong will fancy an opportunity to redeem themselves at Murrayfield and the same will ring true for everyone who was involved last weekend.

Backing the squad that was beaten by England – aside from any players forced out through injury – could produce the required response.

Vice-captain O’Mahony said the best way for Ireland to start down that path is by training to as high a standard as possible and the Munster captain feels that is happening already.

“Seeing Jordan Larmour out there, tearing it up in training, or Robbie Henshaw or Niall Scannell, guys training as well as they can, it gives everyone a lift,” said O’Mahony yesterday.

“When you see guys setting high standards, that is what we hold ourselves to. And that is what has to be done now.

“It certainly hurt us, the last 48 hours. That is only natural for a competitive athlete to be hurt after something like that, but you cannot let that fester now because the beauty of it is that you have a massive international this weekend.

“For those of us who will get a chance to play on Saturday, there’s a big onus on guys to be able to put the jersey back where we want to put it.”

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