Uncapped players and Sexton's fitness - 5 talking points from Schmidt's Six Nations squad

The head coach named a 40-man panel this morning.

WITH THE SIX Nations now coming into sharp focus, Joe Schmidt this morning named his 40-man squad for Ireland’s opening fixtures against Scotland and Italy. Here are five talking points from the announcement.

1. Uncapped players

Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton is tackled by Munster’s Rory Scannell and Niall Scannell Rory and Niall Scannell tackle Johnny Sexton during last September's intepro. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It’s always going to be the main talking point of any squad announcement but the inclusion of the Scannell brothers, Niall and Rory, as well as Munster team-mate Andrew Conway is hardly surprising.

The trio have been rewarded for their excellent form for the province this season and deserve their place as part of Schmidt’s panel for the first two games of the championship campaign.

Niall has established himself as Munster’s first-choice hooker this term with a string of impressive and consistent performances under Rassie Erasmus.

With Sean Cronin sidelined for the tournament, it would have been easy for Schmidt to stick with the tried-and-trusted option of Richardt Strauss but the door has now opened for Scannell.

He will be in direct competition with Leinster’s James Tracy for a place on the bench behind captain Rory Best.

Similarly the absence of Jared Payne through injury gives Rory, 23, the chance to win his first Test cap after being involved in the extended squad for the November series victory over Australia.

Having said that, each of the uncapped trio are included on merit and Conway’s flying form on the Munster wing has pushed him up the pecking order and into Schmidt’s plans.

The former Leinster man has represented Ireland at Schools, U20, Wolfhounds and Emerging level so this season has very much been a coming of age for the 25-year-old. It’s a real show of faith in the former Blackrock College man.

2. Sexton’s fitness and Madigan’s omission

Ian Madigan Madigan in action for Bordeaux against Ulster on Saturday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Schmidt would have feared for the availability of his talisman as Johnny Sexton hobbled out of Leinster’s Champions Cup game at Castres on Friday but the out-half’s presence in the squad is a clear indication that his calf problem is not serious.

Sexton’s injury struggles have been well documented and the Leinster man is only just returning to full fitness after an extended period on the sidelines with hamstring problems.

That Paddy Jackson is the only other out-and-out option at 10 underlines the confidence the IRFU medical staff have in Sexton’s calf (and hamstrings) as we wait to discover the extent of the damage.

With Joey Carbery also out of action, Rory Scannell can cover the out-half position and is a viable alternative if required but the omission of Ian Madigan will raise eyebrows.

The 27-year-old is now, of course, plying his trade with Bordeaux in France and the IRFU’s tendency to omit overseas players means he is appears to be currently off the radar when it comes to national selection.

His absence from this morning’s press release was expected but it still bewilders many when questions marks are still hanging over Sexton’s fitness.

3. The return of Tommy Bowe

Tommy Bowe T-Bowe makes a return to the squad after a lengthy absence. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It has been a long road back for Tommy Bowe so it’s good to see the Ulster wing back in the Irish squad after an injury-plagued 18 months.

The 32-year-old missed last year’s Six Nations after sustaining that horrific posterior cruciate ligament injury during Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in September 2015.

That was the last time he pulled on the green jersey but Bowe has been slowly working his way back to full speed over the last few months and is now back in the Ireland picture to provide competition on the wing.

Speaking back in November, the Monaghan native targeted the Six Nations after having to watch Ireland’s November heroics from the sofa.

“Joe’s just asked me to work hard to try and get my form back, try and get myself up to that level that he knows I can get to,” he said.

“The ball’s in my court. I’m under no illusions that it’s going to be very difficult to get into the Irish team the way they’re playing, to get into the Ulster team is difficult.

“I have confidence in myself that I can do it, my leg feels good, body feels good. My speed scores on the GPS are really coming back, they’re really not far away. It just takes a few games to get that sharpness.”

4. Players in form

Jack Conan Jack Conan has been in sensational form. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There’s a feel-good factor around Irish rugby at the moment and confidence will be high going into the Six Nations campaign.

Not only do Schmidt’s side go into this year on the back of victories against New Zealand and Australia but the level of performance from Leinster and Munster, in particular, gives great grounds for optimism.

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Of course, it is all about the collective but the moving, individual parts appear to be in fine working order and it’s hard not to be enthused by the prospect of Schmidt’s men pulling on the green jersey again.

We all know what the likes of Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander, Best and Robbie Henshaw bring to the table but the form of those pushing for inclusion makes competition for places incredibly fierce.

The back row has always been an area of strength and the wealth of options available to Schmidt is scary. Heaslip, Stander, Sean O’Brien (although doubts remain over his fitness) and Josh van der Flier are joined in the ranks by the returning Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony and the Leinster duo of Dan Leavy and Jack Conan.

The latter, in particular, has forced his way into the reckoning off the back of a barnstorming couple of weeks in Europe for his province and he’s another player to have come through the other side of a frustrating time with injuries.

Conan’s last, and only, appearance in green came in the summer of 2015 against Scotland so this chance has been a long-time coming but very much deserved.

The scrum-half position is another department of strength. Needless to say, Murray is first-choice but Kieran Marmion will really be pushed for a place as his understudy by Leinster’s Luke McGrath, who has developed into a fine operator this term.

A cursory glance down the squad list shows a sprinkling of quality across the pitch and plenty in reserve for Schmidt. Expectations are understandably high.

5. Schmidt sticks to what he knows

Adam Byrne This squad probably came a bit too early for Adam Byrne. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

We hardly expected the head coach to name more than a handful of uncapped players in his squad but there could have been still room for him to reward the likes of Denis Buckley, Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin. Connacht’s Sean O’Brien could also be put in this bracket, although Schmidt has strength in depth in that position already.

In truth, it probably came too soon for those players having only really made their breakthrough since the last time Ireland played — but when you consider Ulster’s form, Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy may be somewhat fortunate to be included.

Obviously the two Ulster backs are vastly experienced, proven at Test level and know the Schmidt systems but if you’re going on form, Byrne and O’Loughlin should be there instead.

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