Joe Schmidt refuses to wing it as he finalises his plans

Fergus McFadden could join Dave Kearney on the flanks against Scotland as Keith Earls is ruled out

Munster’s Keith Earls has been ruled out of at least Ireland’s openibng two Six Nations game with a knee injury. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster’s Keith Earls has been ruled out of at least Ireland’s openibng two Six Nations game with a knee injury. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Thu, Jan 23, 2014, 01:00

Already missing Tommy Bowe for at least the first two games of the Six Nations at home to Scotland and Wales, the Irish management are resigned to being without Keith Earls, the player likeliest to assume the number 14 jersey on form, for at least the same amount of time.

Having spoken to the player on Monday evening, Joe Schmidt revealed that Earls suffered medial damage to his knee when his leg was trapped underneath the body of Edinburgh’s Dougie Fife in Munster’s Heineken Cup win last Sunday and that he will be sidelined for anything between three to eight weeks.

“We’re waiting on his scan results and he did take a fair whack to that knee and I’d say that there might be a bit of medial damage there. If it is, it could be anything from three, to six, to eight weeks. The grade of that we’ll find out and probably know by Thursday. Certainly, he’ll be unavailable for the next two weekends, the Scotland and Wales games.”

This complicates Schmidt’s selections on the wing, where form and especially injuries have fluctuated between a hatload of contenders this season, although his comments in London yesterday suggest it could be Fergus McFadden joining Dave Kearney on the flanks.

Other big guy’
“Losing Tommy is a big blow, because he’s a starring player for the Lions. He’s a bigger player for us physically, and he’s got more experience, but I thought Dave Kearney did very well against the All Blacks. Fergus McFadden made five clean line breaks when we had an ordinary performance against Australia. Luke Fitzgerald has been showing good form.”

“Obviously Keith Earls, we’re really disappointed about. I think Keith is a super player but having Andrew Trimble back; I thought he was really good against Leicester and really good in the air. He brings a physical edge that maybe Tommy has got size wise. He’s the other big guy.”

Despite the “luxury” of being able to recall the fit-again duo of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy, who were the wingers in situ for the opening win in Cardiff,Schmidt said: “I still believe they may be a little bit short, not of quality, but of quality game time and so that’s probably just why initially we weren’t looking at those guys at the forefront. But it gives you a little bit of comfort if we do get injuries.”

The problem for Schmidt of course, is that McFadden has had little rugby lately as well.

The other selection issue is the occupant of the openside role in place of the injured Seán O’Brien, with Schmidt citing the three contenders – Chris Henry, Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy – as reasons why this week’s training has had to entail revising Schmidt’s famed level of detail rather than continuing where they left off in November. Henry was the only one of the three in the November camp, but was injured after the first game against Samoa. Schmidt strongly intimated that O’Donnell will play for the Wolfhounds against the Saxons on Saturday, with Henry seemingly in pole position.

“I just think at the moment we are happy with Chris Henry. I think Tommy O’Donnell has had three games and he’s been noticeably better in each of the games. So there is some upside to him getting some game time hopefully, and he’ll get a bit of game time this weekend.”

“Jordi, I think, in his last three games has had at least two man of the match performances so he’s been very good . . . He got smashed mainly by some big men in Castres, but he’s resilient, Jordi, he got up and I thought he had an impact when he came on and obviously managed to dot down in Castres as well . . .”

Murphy also has the advantage of playing for Leinster under Schmidt, and with regard to the bench at any rate, has versatility across the backrow.

A tad irritatingly for the coach, Johnny Sexton will fly to Paris today in readiness for Racing Metro’s game against Toulouse on Saturday, before returning to Ireland squad’s base at Carton House on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. Helpfully though, Sexton did not play in Clermont last Sunday.

Fatigued outhalf
“He’s a lot fresher,” admitted Schmidt by comparison to the fatigued outhalf who pitched up for the November series, was rested for the Samoan game before failing to see out the All Blacks’ defeat. “He didn’t play last weekend down in the swamp at Clermont . . . So, he was a lot fresher, I think he’s in really good shape for the Six Nations.”

“Certainly, if Racing had still been in the Heineken Cup he’d have played last weekend and if they’d been playing Toulouse this week he’d have played again. The fact that they were out of the Heineken Cup meant that they didn’t require Johnny to play and hopefully, touch wood, there’s no injury in Toulouse and he’ll be ready to go for Scotland.”

That Sexton has thus far remained the squad’s only exile after the IRFU successfully tied down O’Brien, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O’Connell and Earls – with only Jamie Heaslip of their frontliners to complete – is “brilliant” according to Schmidt.

The IRFU have not set a Six Nations target for Schmidt, who instead revealed: “I verbalised a target, and they haven’t said anything that is in any way disagreeing with that target. I said for us a really successful Six Nations would be top two. We’re talking about some really competitive teams and I think it would be solid if we made the top half, and if we’re in the bottom three I’ll be really disappointed.”

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