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O'Brien return to boost Ireland as Schmidt narrows in on XV for France

There are a number of players carrying injuries this week ahead of the trip to Paris.

WE’RE ONLY IN the second week of the Six Nations, but Ireland’s players will welcome their today’s rest day more readily than ever.

Yesterday saw Joe Schmidt and his squad carry out a training session of just over 40 minutes and that was at what assistant coach Richie Murphy described as a “medium intensity, because we’re only getting over the game at the weekend.”

Sean O'Brien and Donncha Ryan Sean O'Brien and Donnacha Ryan lead the Ireland warm-up. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Andrew Trimble, Johnny Sexton, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls all sat out even that shortened run out in sleety rain at Carton House yesterday as the various injuries sustained in a brutal battle against Wales on Sunday kept them off the pitch.

Meanwhile, Sean O’Brien made a welcome full return to training and Rob Kearney took part in a portion of it as both Leinster men recover from the hamstring strains that kept them out last weekend.

Murphy said yesterday that Ireland are “pretty confident” that Sexton, Trimble and Zebo will be ready for this weekend, albeit that Zebo is causing most concern, while the feeling is that fullback Kearney “will definitely be fit.”

We were reminded last week that injury updates from Ireland camp should be taken with a pinch of salt at times, but the sense is that Earls is the only man sure to miss out through injury this weekend. Zebo, it seems, is a genuine doubt at this point.

It leaves Schmidt and his coaches with some interesting selection calls as always, with Kearney appearing a good bet to resume his occupancy of the 15 shirt after Zebo started there last weekend.

Recovery for Trimble would see him retain a wing spot, with Dave Kearney likely to come in to the XV on the other side if Zebo’s knee continues to trouble him.

The centre pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw proved its worth once again in a fascinating battle with Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies last weekend, so they are highly unlikely to be separated for Paris.

Conor Murray Murray will continue at scrum-half for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton’s hoped-for recovery would see him partner Conor Murray in that longstanding first-choice halfback duo.

O’Brien’s return would see him start, but there are a range of options for Ireland in the back row of course. The most likely outcome seems to be that CJ Stander will be asked to pick up where he left off against the Welsh last weekend, as will Jamie Heaslip, though Rhys Ruddock and Tommy O’Donnell both staked big claims at the Aviva Stadium.

Devin Toner will lead the lineout from the second row again, and while Mike McCarthy did little wrong, Schmidt may opt to freshen the engine room by adding Donnacha Ryan’s energy from the off.

Ireland’s decision not to call Cian Healy and, particularly, Mike Ross into camp this week is an interesting one.

“Cian and Rossy have been our loose and tightheads for the last long while, but they have to earn the right to get back into the squad as well and their way through is to try and play for Leinster, put in a good performance and make their way from there,” said Murphy of that call.

It means that Nathan White and Tadhg Furlong remain the two options at tighthead for this weekend. The young Wexford man is bursting to start for his country, but White has experience on his side, even after the issues against Rob Evans last time out.

After a trojan 80-minute effort against the Welsh, Jack McGrath will need to summon more energy at loosehead, though it seems certain that Munster’s in-form James Cronin will actually see game time this weekend.

Joe Schmidt and Jack McGrath McGrath put in a phenomenal shift last weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Rory Best captaining at hooker again, Sean Cronin might expect to make another impact off the bench. Kieran Marmion will hope for his chance if he is included there again this weekend, while Murphy confirmed yesterday that “Mads [Ian Madigan] just probably suits the bench better than Paddy [Jackson] does at the moment.”

Zebo’s fitness may decide the final bench spot, as his retention in the XV would see Dave Kearney occupy it again. If the Munster man’s knee does not recover, however, Fergus McFadden might fancy his chances of providing multi-position cover.

Of course, the presence of Stuart McCloskey in Ireland camp remains a fascinating one, though his lack of versatility might just count against him this time around.

Analysis: Schmidt’s attack strikes but ruthless edge needed against France

Ireland ready to spring towards Paris after bruising ‘neutral’ start

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Murray Kinsella

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