Wolfhounds the final audition for Ireland’s main stage
Number of playerss are hoping to catch the eye of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt
With Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe ruled out, opportunity knocks for Fergus McFadden. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The first and last opportunity for a raft of players to put in a head turning performance for Ireland coach Joe Schmidt takes place at Kingsholm on Saturday. With the news coming from Munster confirming Keith Earls will probably miss the entire Six Nations Championship, having damaged medial ligaments in his left knee during Munster’s win over Edinburgh last weekend, another door has opened for the Irish Wolfhound backs. Earls is out for six to eight weeks.
It was the theme of yesterday’s shadow national team announcement by coach Anthony Foley that Schmidt would be watching closely and that a number of players have an opportunity to impress. This game against England Saxons is Ireland’s only ‘A’ match of the Six Nations series.
Fergus McFadden, just back from a hand injury, starts on the right wing. He will certainly see this as a final trial. The gaps left by the injured Earls and Tommy Bowe offer him opportunity on the wing and in the centre, along with Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo.
Short of game time
Outhalf Ian Madigan finally gets a start,but has been chronically short of game time. Paddy Jackson, not playing this weekend, seems solidly Johnny Sexton’s back up, Madigan’s problems stemming as much from Jimmy Gopperth’s fabulous form with Leinster.
Three uncapped players, hooker Rob Herring, tighthead prop Martin Moore and number eight Robin Copeland, have also been included.
“It’s a real positive environment because everybody has seen the opportunity that is there,” said Foley. “Everybody has heard that Joe [Schmidt] is looking for strength and depth in the National squad and if you are in the Wolfhounds that’s your opportunity to put your hand up for a place in the Six Nations team.
“Win the game on Saturday and that puts you in a good boat. That puts you in a good place with the coach and then if the coach sees the opportunity to put you into a Six Nations game he has confidence in the last time he’s seen you play. Hopefully we’ll see three or four of these guys play in the Six Nations and maybe even more.”
Another player not included is Damian Varley. The Munster hooker took a knock on the head against Edinburgh and is currently with Munster continuing with a return to play programme.
Munster team-mate David Kilcoyne is another hoping to earn a backup place to Cian Healy, with Leinster’s Jack McGrath on the bench probably believing he will have first run there. Also in the replacements is hooker Richardt Strauss, who makes a stunning recovery having spoken about an April return after a heart operation last October.
In the secondrow, Iain Henderson starts, while there’s an athletic looking backrow with Rhys Ruddock captaining the side, the form openside in Tommy O’Donnell and Robin Copeland, who plays with Munster next season, at number eight.
While Foley understands the players are on show for Schmidt, it’s a game he wants to win. But the two imperatives are not mutually exclusive . “For me you enter a competition . . . It’s to come out on top. It’s not about anything else,” explains Foley “It’s about getting that win and making sure that we do our week’s work justice.”
“Just looking at their team, they’ve a lot of talented players,” adds the coach. “They’ve Simpson at nine, Freddie Burns at 10 and a lot of speed out wide . . . [But] any time you deal with an English team it is their pack and the power that they get up front. Their set-piece, driving maul, it is something that we have to confront and make sure it’s a level playing field for us.”