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Connacht revival presents lead contenders to break into Ireland Six Nations squad

Joe Schmidt will unveil his squad for the Grand Slam defence tomorrow, but there is precious little room for new faces.

Updated at 20.15

A TENURE-DEFINING year lies ahead for Joe Schmidt.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt speaking at an event in the Aviva this week. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The Kiwi will depart his role as Ireland head coach after the World Cup’s conclusion in Japan and, ultimately, the silverware and landmark victories he has delivered since taking over in 2013 would pick up a touch of tarnish if he is unable to take his team into the tournament’s last four.

International rugby rarely delivers much room for experimentation, and entering the Six Nations as reigning Grand Slam winners building towards the World Cup is certainly not the time to veer far from the tried and trusted. And absolutely not when the schedule pits Ireland against England in week one.

Schmidt will unveil his first squad for 2019 tomorrow afternoon. It is expected to include a little under 40 names. So there is some space to accommodate a few new faces to change up the dynamic around Carton House.

Next month will see Schmidt’s sixth Six Nations kick off and he has ordinarily preferred to keep the uncapped numbers low in each pre-tournament squad. The outlier in that regard came in his first tournament when current regulars Kieran Marmion, Jordi Murphy and Rob Herring were brought into the fold alongside Marty Moore, Robin Copeland, Robbie Diack and Rodney Ah You.

Since then he has only gone with more than two uncapped players on one occasion – the four named in 2016 – and ahead of the Grand Slam bid only Jordan Larmour had no previous Test experience.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt runs a warm-up ahead of Ireland's November win over the USA. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As ever in rugby, injuries offer the most clear-cut openings on occasions like these and Caolin Blade’s form in the absence of Kieran Marmion this season has given him a chance of stepping in to fill Luke McGrath’s absence.

It is not just the Galwegian scrum-half, though, Connacht’s revival this season has put several viable options on the table for Schmidt.

Tom Farrell’s odds of inclusion looked far better at the beginning of last week when Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell were in doubt, but he would be a wholly merited addition to Ireland’s stellar midfield options.

Quinn Roux is a regular for Schmidt and Ultan Dillane has bounced in and out since his 2016 debut, but the stand-out lock for Connacht this season has been Gavin Thornbury and few would argue if the powerful 25-year-old was the man to most benefit from Iain Henderson’s absence.

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Gavin Thornbury Thornbury ready for kick-off against Leinster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Meanwhile, Cian Kelleher’s pace and power should see him challenge the likes of Adam Byrne and Darren Sweetnam for support places behind Ireland’s stellar first-choice back three. Though with the versatile Will Addison, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway also in line for a place, there may only be one extra berth available.

Paul Boyle’s form has been consistently excellent throughout the first half of the season and he could see his efforts rewarded if Peter O’Mahony’s rib injury fails to heal in time or if Sean O’Brien needs a little longer to work up to match fitness.

Outside of Connacht, Ulster also carry scope for fresh caps, though not necessarily debuts.

Marty Moore has made good on the promise of solidified scrums around the Kingspan and would merit a recall and the chance to build on his 10 caps before March is out – albeit the form of Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, John Ryan and Finlay Bealham doesn’t leave much room to squeeze an extra tighthead in.

Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy Moore and Murphy in action against Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Moore’s fellow front row at the northern province, Eric O’Sullivan was name-checked last month by Schmidt as one to watch in 2019 and his work-rate – including 20 tackles against Racing – certainly sets him out as a player the Kiwi enjoy coaching. However, the number one jersey is one of many positions where the incumbents offer precious little foothold to new challengers.

There is scope for Schmidt to label tomorrow’s squad as one to cover the opening rounds of the Championship, with World Cup pool rivals Scotland coming on the heels of England.

There will then be a break ahead of the trip to Italy and that Test may be the one earmarked for any new blood Schmidt is keen on trialing ahead of Japan.

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Sean Farrell

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