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Schmidt's Wolfhounds XV leaves more Six Nations questions than answers

A number of positions remain unclear for the trip to Rome in two weekends.

322.

The number of international caps the Ireland Wolfhounds starting XV to face the England Saxons at Musgrave Park in Cork this evening [KO 19.45] has between them.

It’s a clear indicator that this fixture is now about far more than blooding youngsters into the set-up and giving fringe players a chance to play in green. Joe Schmidt is sending this side out with Six Nations places on the line.

Joe Schmidt Getting a read on this man's thoughts is no easy task. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It’s an intriguingly strong selection that oddly leaves us with more questions than answers as to who will be included in the senior Ireland team to face Italy in Rome on 7 February.

No Ian Keatley, but Ian Madigan starts at out-half. Does that mean Schmidt is holding Keatley back to wer 10 in Rome? Or is the Kiwi head coach simply giving Madigan vital minutes at out-half before he leads the charge against the Italians?

Jordi Murphy and Tommy O’Donnell are both absent. Can we presume that means the pair will definitely both be involved in Italy? What if Sean O’Brien puts in a thunderous display to ensure he wears the seven shirt at Stadio Olimpico or at least benches?

Mike Ross getting game time ahead of a huge Italian scrum challenge or Marty Moore getting the weekend off to charge up his scrummaging batteries? Luke Fitzgerald reacquainting himself with the wing before starting at 11 for the Six Nations opener?

Jared Payne is “fit,” but “not considered for selection” despite only recently returning from injury. Does that mean Schmidt is holding the Ulsterman back to rekindle his centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw next weekend?

We say Madigan, O’Donnell, Moore, Fitzgerald and Payne for the Italy game, but one could equally and validly argue the case for other contenders.

It’s a relief to know that the players themselves are as unsure about Schmidt’s thoughts on selection.

“Joe has always been like that, and I think it’s a good way to be,” says hooker Richardt Strauss, who starts against the Saxons this evening.

Luke Fitzgerald and Ian Madigan Fitzgerald and Madigan both start this evening. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“It keeps everyone on their toes and you have to be sharp on every rep, because Joe will pick it up and he’ll show you up in the next video session.”

Even men like Strauss and Fergus McFadden, who have worked under Schmidt at Leinster and Ireland, still can’t read exactly what their coach is thinking.

The New Zealander wouldn’t have it any other way.

After being coached by Joe for a few years in Leinster and then with Ireland, you’d think I know him. But he’s quite hard to read with what he does, to be honest with you,” says McFadden. “At this stage, I’ve gotten to the stage of doing what I can do best.

“Whatever team Joe picks next week is what he thinks is the best team to play Italy.”

Strauss explains that the Wolfhounds only separated from the remainder of the squad in the late stages of this week to sharpen their starter plays and set-piece calls, but before that it was very much collective.

Are we going to see a remove in playing style from the Wolfhounds, head coached by Conancht’s Dan McFarland for this fixture, compared to what Schmidt’s senior side are known for?

“It would probably be stuff that is similar, but obviously we’ve got our own stuff as well,” explains Strauss.

Jack Conan Jack Conan has been named at number eight. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“We prepare for every game as an individual game and we’ve got stuff we want to do that will be different to what the senior team would do. But you probably would see some similar stuff in there.”

The Saxons comes with a star-studded selection too – Strauss admits he got “a bit of a fright” when he saw their XV – as the likes of Chris Ashton, Henry Slade, Thomas Waldrom and Marland Yarde are included.

The one-on-one match-ups in a number of positions are fascinating, but Strauss warns that he and his teammates will not be getting caught up with ideas of furthering the individual cause.

I think the biggest mistage you can make in these games is trying to do stuff by yourself,” says Strauss. “My focus will just be to do everything I can to make the team successful. If you do that, the people who understand the game will see what you do.”

McFarland has been providing “nice, simple, direct messages” to the Wolfhounds this week and both McFadden and Strauss underline the fact they they are as well prepared as they would be for a Six Nations game.

There’s too much on the line to take this clash with anything less than total seriousness.

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“This weekend is all about us having an opportunity,” says Strauss. “Some guys need game time and others, like myself, need to try and push for the places in the Six Nations.”

Schmidt will expect be provided with answers to some of his conundrums ahead of Italy, and the rest of us might get a better idea too.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt will look for the Wolfhounds to force his hand. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland Wolfhounds

15. Felix Jones (captain)
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Keith Earls
12. Gordon D’Arcy
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Ian Madigan
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Jack McGrath
2. Richardt Strauss
3. Mike Ross
4. Iain Henderson
5. Mike McCarthy
6. Dominic Ryan
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Michael Bent
18. Nathan White
19. Robbie Diack
20. Eoin McKeon
21. Isaac Boss
22. Noel Reid
23. Craig Gilroy

England Saxons

15. Chris Pennell (Worcester Warriors)
14. Chris Ashton (Saracens)
13. Elliot Daly (Wasps)
12. Sam Burgess (Bath Rugby)
11. Marland Yarde (Harlequins)
10. Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs)
9. Lee Dickson (captain) (Northampton Saints)

1. Matt Mullan (Wasps)
2. Rob Webber (Bath Rugby)
3. Henry Thomas (Bath Rugby)
4. Matt Garvey (Bath Rugby)
5. James Gaskell (Wasps)
6. Dave Ewers (Exeter Chiefs)
7. Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby)
8. Thomas Waldrom (Exeter Chiefs)

Replacements:

16. Luke Cowan Dickie (Exeter Chiefs)
17. Alex Waller (Northampton Saints)
18. Jake Cooper-Woolley (Wasps)
19. Maro Itoje (Saracens)
20. Carl Fearns (Bath)
21. Joe Simpson (Wasps)
22. Ollie Devoto (Bath Rugby)
23. Christian Wade (Wasps)

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