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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 2 December 2020

'Stuart is well able to step up - McCloskey among new faces for Schmidt to consider

CJ Stander and Stuart McCloskey look physically ready to face Wales.

WHEN JOE SCHMIDT cited size and power as two of the reasons Garry Ringrose might not be quite ready to face Wales, you could understand where the Ireland head coach was coming from.

CJ Stander and Stuart McCloskey CJ Stander and Stuart McCloskey are physically ready. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

At a combined 214kg, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are of dimensions that have proven difficult for many teams to shut down. The former has regularly battered beyond the gainline against Ireland, while the latter fended Johnny Sexton into the ground memorably in last year’s Six Nations.

Mass isn’t everything of course, but at just over 90kg it might have proven a difficult match-up for Ringrose on any possible debut.

On the other hand, all 110kg of 23-year-old Stuart McCloskey looks readymade for Test rugby. His power with ball in hand is beyond doubt – he is a gainline merchant for Ulster – while his choke tackle turnovers are increasingly regular.

The temptation for Schmidt is, of course, to maintain the Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne combination in midfield against Wales’ experienced duo, but McCloskey is a fascinating possibility too, also allowing Payne to play 15. Athletically, McCloskey is ready.

“He’s played against some pretty physical teams this year,” said Ireland assistant coach Simon Easterby this afternoon in that regard. “Toulouse up in Ravenhill weren’t a small team; they’re a big set and he did really well.

“He’s gone well in the physicality stakes against Saracens. He’s a big man and so are Wales. They’ve got threats across their backline the same sort of size as Stuart and he’s well able to step up and that wouldn’t be an issue for him if he were to be selected.”

Josh van der Flier Van der Flier has impressed for Leinster at openside. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Alongside McCloskey, there are three further uncapped players in Ireland’s squad desperate for a first taste of Test rugby this weekend. Ultan Dillane, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander all have differing but exciting attributes.

The issue with installing, say, McCloskey and Stander into Ireland’s XV is their inexperience, although there is only one way to earn that. The sense for Ireland is that they must find a balance between their established and experienced players and the energy of newer faces.

“Guys have come in and they’ve trained really well, those new guys,” said Easterby. “CJ and Stuart, two guys that haven’t been in the squad before, and the same with Josh.

We’ve got to have a balance and try have some continuity from the World Cup, but also if guys are playing well and we feel like they’re going to add value and be better than the person that was there before them, then we’ll pick those guys.

“I think we’re really fortunate over the last few months that some guys have put their hands up and that’s given us some headaches in selection and, as selectors, that’s what we want.

“We want to be coming out of selection meetings feeling like we’ve had a hard choice to make because players have been making it really competitive.”

Ultan Dillane Ultan Dillane is a skillful, dynamic option at lock. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Schmidt is well known as a man who stays loyal to the established combinations that have worked for him in the past – consecutive Six Nations titles should not be sneered at even after World Cup disappointment – but outstanding players like McCloskey and Stander need to be unleashed at some point.

Whether against Wales this weekend or in Paris against the French the week after, we are likely to see new faces lining out for Ireland.

We’re not as experienced as [Wales] in terms of their match day 23,” said Easterby. “I think they’ve got over 900 caps between them. We wouldn’t be as strong as that but that shouldn’t be an issue.

“We’ve got enough experience through the spine of the team that allows us to pick players with a couple of caps, if they have haven’t been capped before, and they can come in with those other experienced guys around them who can support them.

“Someone’s got to win a first cap at some point during their career. It might be this week, it might be next week but I’m sure we’ll see guys over the next few weeks – if they put their hands up in training and they have done in playing games up until this point – get opportunities.”

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Murray Kinsella

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