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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 6 December, 2019
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O'Brien and Beirne training hard to give Schmidt headaches for Cardiff

The pair missed out on selection last week but are pushing to be involved against Wales.

JOE SCHMIDT’S SELECTION throughout this Six Nations has been shaped by a ‘slightly different brief’, so it will be fascinating to see if his need to build the depth chart in certain positions will extend into the final weekend of the championship. 

With Japan very much on his mind, Schmidt’s agenda has been twofold in recent weeks, the Ireland head coach making more alterations than usual from game-to-game, but also remaining cognisant of the importance of winning momentum. 

Sean O'Brien O'Brien is hoping to be involved this weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Five changes for Scotland, four for the trip to Rome and seven for last weekend’s victory over France in Dublin, supplemented to eight upon Rob Kearney’s late withdrawal, gives an insight into Schmidt’s forward-thinking. 

It’s unlikely the Kiwi will look to alter too much heading into the final weekend of the championship given the much-improved performance in round four, but also the size of the task awaiting against Grand Slam-chasing Wales in Cardiff.

Rob Kearney and Joey Carbery will be given every opportunity to prove their fitness, the pair both taking part in a light training session at Carton House this afternoon, while Dan Leavy is back in Schmidt’s squad.

The Leinster flanker will provide Sean O’Brien with competition for the number seven jersey after Josh van der Flier was ruled out of selection with the groin injury that forced him off after just 23 minutes on Sunday. 

While there is also the option to start with the back row unit of CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony and Jack Conan that finished the victory over France, both O’Brien and Leavy are pushing hard to force Schmidt’s hand.

O’Brien, having fallen out of the selection picture last week following an off-colour showing against Italy, will be desperate to be involved again and show his enduring worth, whether it’s in a starting position or coming off the bench at the Principality Stadium. 

Leavy, meanwhile, appears to have finally shaken off the calf issue which has kept him sidelined since January and the Leinster flanker will train fully later hoping to prove to Schmidt and the coaches he can be pitched straight back in.

Munster’s Tadhg Beirne is also an option, although more likely to be selected as a second row, as he pushes for involvement having missed the first three rounds with a knee injury, the 27-year-old potentially offering valuable insight into Wales given his hugely-successful two-year stint with the Scarlets.

There is also the potency Beirne brings at the breakdown and the turnover threat he provides, with Ireland joint last of the turnovers won [18] statistics alongside Italy this championship.

“Tadhg has been doing that [training well] every week he has been in camp, to be honest,” scrum coach Greg Feek said this afternoon. “He is a pretty driven young man and has a lot to offer. The lock position is getting pretty competitive at the moment.”

Greg Feek Greg Feek speaking at Carton House today. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As Sean Cronin continues to be absent due to what management describe as ‘squad building reasons’, that point was put to Feek in the context of giving Beirne valuable minutes in green ahead of the World Cup.  

He replied: “It’s taken into account. We just have to deal with what’s in front of us at the moment and if he gets through today and gets his detail right, they’ve all got their hands up. 

“He’s definitely available. There are some good headaches there. Last week he was a little bit stiff from the Ospreys game. I enjoy watching him train. You need someone who can test you with a bib on and he certainly does that.”

Schmidt, however, is unlikely to deter from his second row pairing of James Ryan and Iain Henderson after their respective performances against Les Bleus, while Beirne will find it hard to dislodge Ultan Dillane from the bench given the Connacht man’s impact in recent weeks.

The back row selection is intriguing, too. There is an argument to be made for Schmidt to retain Stander, O’Mahony and Conan — they started together in the third Test against Australia last summer — with O’Brien, Leavy and Jordi Murphy providing the alternative options. 

Conan clearly relished and benefited from the protracted game-time on Sunday after van der Flier’s injury, while Stander displayed his versatility by slotting into the openside position amid the enforced reshuffle.

Feek said of O’Brien: “He has been training, he has been working really hard. I suppose it does put him in contention but those sort of things are a natural progression.

“That’s why Dan is there as well so we’ll make our minds up and obviously Pete covered there at the weekend and did alright too. There are a few options there but at this stage, we’ll see how that group fits together this afternoon and go from there.”

Where possible, Schmidt will look to remain consistent in selection this week ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Warren Gatland’s side, who are bidding to complete the Grand Slam.

Feek admits there’s real excitement within the camp ahead of what promises to be a high-octane renewal of battle lines between the two rivals, with Ireland travelling with their own motivation having failed to win a Six Nations game in Cardiff during Schmidt’s tenure. 

Andrew Conway, Rob Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockade and Chris Farrell The Ireland squad in the gym this morning. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I think what we did against France, it’s important to get some momentum from that,” Feek continued.

“We’ve always believed in what we’ve had as a group, in terms of how we play the game, and unfortunately the weeks before that things weren’t clicking. It was good to see almost three games in one half come together and there was just a real calmness within us to get that going.

“I thought the players really led that superbly last week in training and in the game. It was one for them.

“There’s now a bit of excitement for us playing over there. There’s a buzz there, an atmosphere and the challenge of the rivalry and obviously what they have at stake.”

The Ireland management will meet today to discuss whether they request the Principality Stadium’s roof to be closed for Saturday afternoon.

“It has been mentioned a couple of times but we have a bit of time before we decide that,” Feek added. “We’ve played with it open, we’ve played with it closed so it might even come down to what the players think as well. We’ll decide that in the next few days.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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