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Connacht's Blade an option for Schmidt as scrum-half injuries mount

Could the 24-year-old be in line for a first international call-up this week?

THE FOOTAGE DOESN’T present clear evidence of how exactly Luke McGrath sustained a worrying knee injury during Leinster’s victory over Toulouse on Saturday, but it was clear the scrum-half was instantly in considerable pain. 

McGrath suffered the injury in the build-up to Leinster’s third try, scored by Sean Cronin, as he appears to be clattered accidentally by a Toulouse player in an awkward collision at the back of a ruck.

Luke McGrath receives treatment McGrath will have a scan on his knee. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Leinster nine was attended to immediately by two team medics as play continued and the home side kept it tight around the fringes, working their way in-field to eventually punch their way over through hooker Cronin.

McGrath was helped down the tunnel as Ross Byrne added the conversion from under the posts, and it was confirmed by Leo Cullen afterwards that the 25-year-old would need a scan to determine the severity of the injury.

You couldn’t help but feel for McGrath, who missed large chunks of the second half of last season with ankle and knee injuries, including most of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning campaign and summer tour of Australia. It would be a cruel blow if he was to face another lengthy layoff. 

Leinster are due to provide an update on McGrath’s injury on Tuesday when they host their weekly media briefing ahead of Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup game at Wasps, but bad news is expected.

The initial fear is that McGrath sustained knee ligament damage and a period on the sidelines would not only be a setback for Leinster, but a concern for Joe Schmidt as scrum-half injuries mount.

“It would be a cruel blow for him, but we’ll see how it unfolds, I’m only speculating at his stage,” Cullen said post-match on Saturday. 

“We’ll get him scanned at the start of the week and make a plan from there. It was the same last year as well. He picked up a medial injury to his knee.

“It was during that period where Jamison [Gibson-Park] stepped in, and he’s been going really well for us as well. We’ve a few options there.”

Schmidt is due to announce his Six Nations squad this week, and while he will anxiously wait for an update on McGrath’s fitness, there is also concern over Ulster’s John Cooney after he pulled out of the victory over Racing 92 with a back complaint.

In addition, Kieran Marmion, who started Ireland’s November wins over Argentina and the All Blacks in Conor Murray’s absence, has not played since then after undergoing ankle surgery.

Marmion is progressing well in his rehab programme and is on course to make a return for the Six Nations, but it remains to be seen if he is fit in time for the championship opener against England on 2 February.

The 26-year-old has not played since the win over the All Blacks and it would be a big ask to step back in as Murray’s deputy in that England clash as his first game back, as he won’t be back in time for Connacht’s Pro14 outing against Cardiff Blues next weekend.

It could open the door for a first international call-up for Marmion’s Connacht team-mate Caolin Blade, who has been in excellent form for the western province this season.

Caolin Blade Blade has featured in all 18 games this season for Connacht. Source: Inpho

Galway native Blade has formed a strong half-back pairing with in-form Jack Carty in the absence of Marmion, featuring in all 18 of Connacht’s games this term across both the Pro14 and Challenge Cup.

The 24-year-old, who made his senior debut in 2015 after coming up through the Connacht academy, has amassed 82 caps for his native province and scored tries in the recent inter-pros against Leinster and Ulster. 

One of the standout strengths of Blade’s game, like McGrath, is his running game around the fringes, often being the first support runner, while he is a brave and physical defender despite standing at just 5ft 5in. 

Regular game time this season has also seen his passing and kicking game develop, and certainly a call-up would allow him to grow further as a player under Schmidt and the Ireland coaches at Carton House. Few would argue it is richly deserved.

“I actually don’t know,” he said when asked where he felt he was in the Ireland pecking order a couple of weeks ago. “I don’t think too much about that. I haven’t really spoken to anyone about that, more so trying to play well here and try get number one here first of all, that’s my aim.

But I’m delighted how I’m playing and I think the team are playing well and that allows me to do what I want.

The sight of McGrath limping off and Cooney pulling out at the last-minute on Saturday afternoon further underlines how quickly the selection picture can change, as a spate of injuries can deplete resources in a flash. 

Four-time capped Cooney’s back spasm means he is a doubt for Ulster’s trip to Welford Road on Saturday but the hope is that he will be able to shake it off and play his part as Dan McFarland’s side bid to get the result required to advance through to a first Champions Cup quarter-final in five years.

As things stand, he could be the only senior nine in the squad as back-up to Murray, who has fully recovered from the neck injury which sidelined him for the November internationals. 

McGrath’s injury may be more serious, of course, and his likely absence will have implications for Leinster, not just for Sunday’s trip to the Ricoh Arena, but with regard to their ‘non-European’ selection dilemma.

Jamison Gibson-Park, who qualifies for Ireland under the residency rule ahead of the World Cup later this year, will likely be pressed into action this week, meaning Cullen can only select one of Scott Fardy and James Lowe, who is available again after suspension.

Nick McCarthy’s foot injury is taking longer to heal than first thought and no return date has been set for the Munster-bound nine, meaning academy options Hugh O’Sullivan and Patrick Patterson could be set for further game time before and during the Six Nations window.

Schmidt is due to announce his panel later in the week.  

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Ryan Bailey

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