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5 players Joe Schmidt will be keeping a close eye on in the Pro12

We’ve picked out two Leinster players and one each from Munster, Ulster and Connacht.

THIS WEEKEND IS a crucial one for the Irish provinces in the Guinness Pro12 as Connacht look to further their Champions Cup qualification push, while Ulster, Munster and Leinster battle for play-off spots.

Ireland honours will be far from the players’ minds, but Joe Schmidt and his national team coaching staff are likely to watch proceedings with interest less than five months before the World Cup.

Here we cast the eye over five men who Schmidt will be keeping a close eye on.

Denis Buckley

The Connacht loosehead has been in excellent form all season, most recently during the Challenge Cup defeat to Gloucester last weekend. The 24-year-old has more experienced candidates ahead of him in Ireland contention, but his performances have been excellent.

Denis Buckley Buckley has already started 21 games for Connacht this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having added somewhere in the region of 8kg of mass to his frame last summer, Buckley has been very effective for Connacht at scrum time, though he has lost none of his mobility around the pitch.

Perhaps as impressive as his set-piece work have been the former Blackrock College man’s breakdown efforts. Buckley is of the Gethin Jenkins mould of loosehead props in that regard.

An introduction into the Ireland set-up before the World Cup would be a big leap for the Buccaneers clubman, but Buckley has consistently stood out and Schmidt is well aware of his ability.

Paddy Jackson

Johnny Sexton is established as Ireland’s first-choice out-half, while Schmidt appears to have full faith in Ian Madigan as number two. That means that unless Ireland bring only two out-halves to the World Cup, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley are fighting for the third spot.

Paddy Jackson and Ian Henderson Jackson has regained full fitness and is playing with confidence. Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

Keatley has already started a game for Ireland this year, while Jackson has had an injury-hit season.

The Ulsterman has looked sharp whenever he has been able to string a series of games together though, playing flat to the gainline and demonstrating the improvements he’s made in his passing.

It may be that Keatley and Jackson get chances in the World Cup warm-ups, but both will be intent on impressing Schmidt in these closing months of the Pro12 campaign.

Dave Kearney

Leinster wing Kearney was omitted from the province’s match day squad for last weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final win over Bath, a sign of the level of competition in the back three.

Dave Kearney Kearney is an old favourite of Schmidt's. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The 25-year-old also struggled to get a look-in with Ireland during the Six Nations after suffering a shoulder injury in January. He trained with Schmidt’s squad at Carton House throughout, but game time never came.

It’s worth remembering that Kearney played all five of Ireland’s games in the 2014 Six Nations success, however, and Schmidt is obviously a fan of his. Defensively, Kearney is superb, while his attacking prowess is underrated.

Getting games between now and the World Cup is the biggest issue, so Kearney must take Sunday’s opportunity against the Dragons with real conviction.

Keith Earls

Another player whose Six Nations involved being on the periphery, Earls acted as travelling back-up to the squad for several games but never got to add to his collection of 39 international caps.

Keith Earls scoring his side's sixth try Earls has been in line-breaking, try-scoring form. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In Munster colours, Earls looks to have rediscovered his dynamism and pace, and a good run into the play-offs would further his World Cup hopes. Schmidt consistently says he needs to see players in high-quality games to judge their real value, so a Pro12 semi-final and final would be important for Earls [as well as Munster].

Anthony Foley has positioned the Limerick man on the wing most recently, after he had made his return from a long-term knee injury in the centre. It remains arguable which position suits Earls better, but that versatility might help as Schmidt looks to whittle his options down to 31 players for September.

Most importantly, Earls needs to keep delivering performances.

Gordon D’Arcy

Left out of Ireland’s most recent training squad and absent from Leinster’s announcement of contract renewals for next season, are we witnessing the final months of Gordon D’Arcy’s playing career?

Gordon D'Arcy Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The 35-year-old has stated his ongoing passion for the game and naturally wants to be part of the World Cup adventure later this year. He will fight every inch of the way to ensure he travels as part of Schmidt’s 31-man squad.

As with Kearney, D’Arcy missed out on selection last weekend against Bath, although he was used off the bench in the second half. Handed a starting chance against the Dragons, the inside centre will be more motivated than usual.

Given that Schmidt omitted D’Arcy from his last squad, it will be tough for the veteran midfielder to convince him to reverse that decision, but the Kiwi coach knows D’Arcy’s value better than most.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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