IRELAND COACH JOE Schmidt won’t be holding a press conference before or after naming his squad for the 2015 Six Nations tomorrow.
So we got to thinking about what we’d be asking the head coach while he’s finalising the invite list to Carton House.
How many 10s does it take to defend a Six Nations title?
The biggest concern for Joe Schmidt going in to this Six Nations Championship is, quite simply, his first choice out-half.
The concussion suffered by Jonathan Sexton against Australia forced the playmaker to sit out a full 12 weeks of rugby. All going well (*taps wood, crosses fingers, severs rabbit foot) Sexton’s neurologist will clear him to play against France on 14 February, but after three months without a contact session it’s unlikely that he’ll be fit to take up a starting berth against that robust French defence.
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As Paddy Jackson was yesterday ruled out of the tournament, Ian Keatley now becomes the natural choice to collect some green gear in Maynooth. It’s hard to picture selecting anyone other than Madigan for the opening Test against Italy. But the Munster man does have more experience in the position than Madigan and will aim to force the coach’s hand particularly for away fixtures.
As Sexton won’t be able to take part in contact sessions for the first two weeks of camp, Schmidt may also draft in a third out-half, either as part of the of the official squad (with a possibility of playing for the Wolfhounds) or perhaps he could call in somebody in the mould of Jack Carty (or JJ Hanrahan if he’s not in the bad books) to experience international training.
Ireland’s – or more specifically, Ulster’s – wealth of centres has greatly dwindled through injury over the last month. Fortunately, the form of Luke Fitzgerald only appears to be getting better with each week he plays. Schmidt is fully paid up member of the Fitzgerald fan club and won’t hesitate in recalling the 2009 Lion if he can sustain his injury-free run.
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There are other options, but there are injury concerns over everyone bar Gordon D’Arcy. Jared Payne has only just returned from a long spell on the sidelines. Robbie Henshaw is nursing a sprained ankle with the Ulster trio of Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding and McCloskey having faced up to injury misfortune.
Perhaps all that will mean there will be an opportunity for Darren Cave to challenge Fitzgerald, Henshaw and Payne for the jersey. Or maybe the head coach earmark one of the back three to cover a centre slot.
Please let Conor Murray be okay
Neck injuries can be tricky to judge, but we’d be much more confident about Ireland’s hope of defending the Six Nations if there had already been good news about Conor Murray’s ailment.
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The scrum-half is almost equally as important to Sexton when it comes to steering Joe’s ship. Although there are quality alternatives both with and without experience, nobody quite comes in to Murray’s class.
Assuming Murray will be fit, he will be joined in the squad by his fellow Limerick man Eoin Reddan with the third slot up for grabs between Kieran Marmion, Isaac Boss and possibly Luke McGrath.
Is it too soon for Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien?
Ireland’s primary ball-carrying options are back in training this week, but will not be eligible to play for Leinster until the Pro12 returns on 15 February.
Given that Healy’s injury was muscular in nature – and bearing in mind he has proven himself to be a fast healer before – you would suspect that the man they call Church will be packing down in green sooner rather than later. With O’Brien’s injury profile it would seem entirely sensible to hold him and his shoulder back from the rigours of international rugby.
If that is the case, then there’s an openside jersey to be won. Chris Henry excelled on the road to victory last year, but should both leading 7s be unavailable, Schmidt will be looking closely at Jordi Murphy and Tommy O’Donnell to challenge Rhys Ruddock (whose recovery timeframe from a broken arm expires next week).
Competition is fierce in the back three
All this injury talk is enough to get you down. So for a little boost, let’s look at the guys with the flashy boots out there in the open field. Accepting Simon Zebo’s ankle knock at the weekend, Andrew Trimble is the only back three player unavailable to the Kiwi coach when he’s selecting his squad.
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That’s good news for Schmidt and Ireland fans. Though with versatile players in the centre, the head coach named only five back three players in his November squad. So there will be bad news for some high profile wings or fullbacks as the Kiwi weighs up who will join the nailed-on starters Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe in the group.
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