Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# Schmidt's Contenders
The return of SOB and more talking points from the Wolfhounds team
Madigan’s audition at 10, Lukey Fitz on the left wing, front row power and a strong Saxons selection.

THE IRELAND WOLFHOUNDS have named their matchday 23 to face the England Saxons tomorrow evening. We’ve taken a look at some of the major talking points.

Wolfhounds: Felix Jones (capt.); Fergus McFadden; Keith Earls, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Ian Madigan, Kieran Marmion; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross; Iain Henderson, Mike McCarthy; Dominic Ryan, Sean O’Brien, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Michael Bent, Nathan White, Robbie Diack, Eoin McKeon, Isaac Boss, Noel Reid, Craig Gilroy.

SOB is back

After a nightmarish 14 months or so that featured two shoulder reconstructions, O’Brien is set for his comeback. His first ball carry is sure to be watched closely at Musgrave Park tomorrow and it seems likely that his motivation will be at a peak.

Sean O'Brien Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

The Leinster man’s sheer athletic ability marks him out as unique in Irish rugby circles, and O’Brien had developed into the complete openside in recent years. Should Ireland make a push for the World Cup later this year, the Tullow native’s fitness appears key.

In that regard, his return is hugely welcome, even if Ireland will be understandably cautious over the coming weeks. O’Brien himself will push hard for inclusion against Italy, but we may see incremental involvements before his first full 80 minutes.

Madigan’s audition

The Leinster back has been seen as favourite to start at out-half against Italy in Johnny Sexton’s absence for some time now. One of the issues for those arguing against such a decision is that Madigan hasn’t been playing regularly at 10 for his province.

Ian Madigan Cathal Noonan / INPHO Leinster's Madigan will direct play from 10. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

However, he gets his latest starting chance at out-half for the meeting with the Saxons tomorrow, an opportunity to put his hand up heading into the Six Nations. Wolfhounds coach Dan McFarland mentioned that as a generally key element of this XV.

Ian Keatley is ommitted, although McFarland indicated that the Munster man is fully fit. That makes the absence more difficult to understand, given that he is the other contender to play against Italy. Is he being held back for a start?

Fitzgerald on the wing

Yesterday, Schmidt told us that Luke Fitzgerald was certainly being considered as an option at outside centre, but the Leinster back is selected on the left wing for tomorrow evening’s game.

Luke Fitzgerald Cathal Noonan / INPHO Luke Fitzgerald is back on the left wing for the Wolfhounds. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Is that a hint as to Schmidt’s thinking for the Italy game on 7 February? Simon Zebo has been the man in possession of Ireland’s 11 shirt, but would a superb showing from Fitzgerald tomorrow push him ahead of the Munster wide man?

Fitzgerald has been in excellent form recently, and will look to bring his cutting edge in attack to Musgrave Park. Defensively he’s been sharp too, meaning his push for senior selection is very real.

Front foot forward

The starting front row is one that could certainly be selected again for the Italy clash with some confidence, given their experience at the top level of the game. Jack McGrath returns from his recent suspension for stamping in order to get game time at loosehead.

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Jack McGrath Ryan Byrne / INPHO McGrath will pick up gametime before the Italy fixture. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

On the other side of the front row, Mike Ross is back in contention after being left out of Leinster’s trip to play Wasps last weekend. Although he may have fallen down the pecking order at Leinster, Schmidt has great trust in the 35-year-old.

Marty Moore will see himself as the favourite to start against Italy, but we wouldn’t put it past Ross to deliver tomorrow night. At hooker, Richardt Strauss appears to be behind frontline duo Rory Best and Sean Cronin, although he is certainly of international quality too.

Saxons coming with strong side

There’s an altogether different sense around this Wolfhounds v Saxons fixture than in past seasons, given the strength of both XVs. Gone are the days when this was simply an opportunity to give young prospects a run in the green jersey.

Thomas Waldrom and Sam Burgess Andrew Fosker / INPHO Slammin' Sam is coming to Cork. Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

The Saxons are coming to Cork fully loaded with internationls like Chris Ashton, Marland Yarde, Chris Pennell, Lee Dickson, Matt Kvesic and Henry Thomas.

Musgrave Park is likely to be treated to a hugely physical encounter, while the inclusion of Sam Burgess is intriguing. Ireland’s XV would arguably be good enough to beat Italy in the Six Nations, meaning we’re in for a fascinating clash tomorrow.

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