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McCloskey and Payne offer Schmidt thrilling options in Ireland's backline

Introducing the Ulsterman at inside centre can change how Ireland’s backs operate.

JOE SCHMIDT WILL announce his first Ireland team of 2016 on Friday afternoon ahead of Sunday’s Six Nations opener against Wales.

While the Kiwi head coach has never been one for making sweeping changes during his tenure, there are some fascinating options to consider in the backline.

Ireland’s Jared Payne Payne could thrive in the 15 shirt for Ireland.

With Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne injured, Ireland’s starting backline for the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina last year was Conor Murray, Ian Madigan, Dave Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney.

Perhaps the two most interesting players for Schmidt to consider this time around are Stuart McCloskey and his Ulster teammate Payne.

Henshaw and Payne have formed Ireland’s first-choice centre partnership since November 2014, and it’s likely that Schmidt is loath to split them up after investing so much time in the pairing and vehemently defending Payne’s ability in the 13 shirt.

They have delivered for Ireland at 12 and 13, with Payne’s defensive quality in the outside centre position having become crucial to this Ireland side. Against the bruising Welshmen Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies there is certainly value in fielding an Irish defensive pairing that knows each other inside out.

McCloskey is a man with enough ability and further potential to break the Irish duo up, particularly given how he could improve Ireland’s attack. His form for Ulster has been exceptional for over a year now and he looks physically capable of stepping up to Test rugby.

With a strong offloading game, subtle footwork, an impressive choke tackling ability in defence and ever-improving kicking and passing games, he looks like being a complete inside centre.

Including McCloskey in the Ireland XV at 12 would also allow Schmidt to set into motion a chain of events that could improve his side elsewhere.

Henshaw has long been thought of as the natural heir to Brian O’Driscoll in the 13 channel and his latest appearance for Connacht in that position last weekend was encouraging.

IrelandÕs Robbie Henshaw Henshaw has all the attributes to excel at outside centre in Test rugby. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

An intelligent defender with strong communication, excellent footwork and an unwillingness to plant his feet and accept tackles, Henshaw seems tailor-made to defend that notoriously difficult channel.

Going forward, he has been a pivotal ball carrier for Ireland off set-piece in the 12 shirt thanks to his size and power, but McCloskey is arguably as effective in that role.

Henshaw runs clever direct lines from 13 too, but also has the ability to thrive in increased space or by attacking defenders one-on-one with his footwork, outside break and offloading game.

Any move for Henshaw to 13 would in turn free Payne to revert to fullback, where he has so often looked at his most effective in attack. He is excellent in the slightly more confined spaces of the midfield, but with time to pick his counter attack and the luxury of roaming behind the line before joining, Payne is a special player.

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His vision is among the very best in this country, but the 13 shirt has not always allowed him to show that for Ireland. Payne at fullback would take major playmaking responsibility from Johnny Sexton and also completely open up Ireland’s attacking game and ability to decision-make in phase play.

In terms of kick return, Ireland have operated with a relatively limited structure in recent seasons and generally just looked to eat up metres quickly by asking Rob Kearney to run straight and hard, setting a target for retreating forwards and reducing the risk of turnover.

Payne’s more intuitive reading of the game could be the basis for growth in this department.

Of course, Kearney has been a stalwart for Ireland under Schmidt and remains an important leader in the group. His aerial game is among the best in the Six Nations, so if Schmidt is to pursue dominance in that area then the Leinster fullback is the best pick at 15.

IrelandÕs Keith Earls Earls is at his most dangerous in attack from the wing. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In the wing positions, Ireland’s record World Cup try scorer Keith Earls deserves to retain a starting place, while Ulsterman Andrew Trimble’s experience and defensive strength is tempting for Schmidt.

Simon Zebo and the in-form Dave Kearney – who certainly won’t be judged by Schmidt on one game at the World Cup – are further options. while we must wait until tomorrow for an official update on Luke Fitzgerald’s fitness after he suffered a knee injury in training last week.

The Leinster man is also a strong contender in the midfield for Ireland if the injury update tomorrow at Carton House is not a negative one, with his form for his province in the 12 shirt having been consistently excellent since the World Cup.

Schmidt has used Fitzgerald in midfield previously – at 13 against New Zealand and in the 12 slot against Canada at the World Cup – meaning he is a viable contender in the front line.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton remain the obvious first-choice halfback pairing for Ireland, though Paddy Jackson’s form for Ulster has been exceptional this season.

All in all, the range of options for Schmidt is mouthwatering. The instinct for this opener against Wales will be to stick with the tried and trusted, but change after two defeats in the last three Tests against Warren Gatland’s men could make the difference.

Murray Kinsella’s backline: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart McCloskey, Keith Earls; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray.

Subs: Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Simon Zebo.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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