Gerry Thornley: Munster players miss chance to sway Joe Schmidt

Failure to make Pro12 playoffs is drawback for fringe players hoping to face Springboks

Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney will vie for the Ireland number 15 jersey in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney will vie for the Ireland number 15 jersey in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The old Munster adage applies: if the team does well, the individual recognition will follow. Of course, this motto is not the sole preserve of Munster, but one of the spin-offs of the other three provinces being in the Pro12 playoffs is that their players can showcase their credentials to Joe Schmidt ahead of Ireland’s tour of South Africa.

Most likely, with no midweek games to encourage some experimentation, the squad will be confined to the low 30s and will be announced either after the semi-finals or final of the Pro12 campaign.

As Andrew Conway noted last week, having been given a fleeting taste of life with the Irish squad in the final week of the Six Nations, Munster’s failure to reach the playoffs will most likely count against all but their most established Ireland players.

Should there are to be any bolters they’ll probably come from the other provinces. Witness the inclusion of seven Connacht players in the 44-man Irish training camp at Johnstown House four weeks ago.

The vast majority of the remaining 30 players who were on duty at the Carton House in the prelude to the final victory at home to Scotland are liable to find themselves on the plane to South Africa, leaving little room for the dozen players subsequently called in to Johnstown House to force their way aboard.

One obvious exception is Iain Henderson. The hugely talented 24-year-old Ulster lock has completed five full games since recovering from the torn hamstring which had sidelined him in early December. By contrast, Donnacha Ryan has been sidelined with concussion since Munster’s defeat to Connacht three weeks ago and won’t have played for eight weeks come the first Test in Cape Town.

Second Captains

Similarly Peter O’Mahony has expressed the hope he might be fit enough to travel after recovering from the cruciate ligament injury he suffered in the World Cup pool match against France last October – an eight-month gap to the first Test in Cape Town. Munster’s failure to reach the Pro12 semi-finals hasn’t helped his cause either.

By contrast, Leinster’s presence in the semi-finals could give Seán O’Brien one last chance to confirm his return to fitness from the torn hamstring he suffered in the defeat to France last February, after a setback in training deferred his anticipated comeback last weekend against Treviso. But setbacks to hamstrung players never sound good, and the argument for leaving O’Brien at home and calling a halt to his season have grown almost as strong as the cases for doing likewise with O’Mahony, Cian Healy and maybe Ryan.

Diluting

Further diluting Ireland’s backrow strength, it looks as if the ankle injury that has sidelined Josh van der Flier since Leinster’s defeat to Ulster has also ended his season. In that case, Jordi Murphy could well force himself onto the plane given the only other openside in the squad is Tommy O’Donnell.

If the decision is to take three scrumhalves, then they will pick themselves (Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion and Eoin Reddan), and ditto outhalf. If only two of the latter, then Ian Madigan’s impending and “unfortunate” move to Bordeaux Begles, as Joe Schmidt described it at the end of the Six Nations, suggests Paddy Jackson’s fine form may have moved him up the pecking order.

Another potentially upwardly mobile Ulster player is Stuart Olding, whose high standing, return to fitness and versatility could see him included in addition to Jared Payne, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall, especially as Fergus McFadden’s suspension for a high tackle against Edinburgh has effectively sidelined him for five weeks until, at best, the Pro12 final.

By contrast, this tour may again have come too soon for Garry Ringrose, but against that Luke Fitzgerald and the Kearneys, Rob and Dave, could all force their way back in ahead of Matt Healy. Fitzgerald was not officially named in the 44-man squad for the aforementioned training camp, but apparently was called in. He is such a good all-round rugby player and such a versatile one that it seems hard to imagine him being left behind especially as his form was so strong before being ruled out of the Six Nations with a knee injury suffered in training.

Serious

Ideally, he would have liked more rugby under his belt, as would Rob Kearney, but the ankle injury he suffered against Treviso on Saturday is not thought to be too serious and, like Fitzgerald, he is at least likely to have that semi-final against Ulster at the RDS on Friday week.

It would also be no surprise if Kearney re-emerges as Simon Zebo’s main rival for the number 15 jersey for Cape Town, with Payne at outside centre and the in-form Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls retaining their places. With only one game since the World Cup, Tommy Bowe’s non-inclusion in the Johnstown House training camp suggests he won’t make the cut.

Conceivably, the only other change to the starting line-up which signed off the Six Nations against Scotland is likely to come in the secondrow, with either Henderson or Ultan Dillane to pack down alongside Devin Toner. That said, the enticing prospect of Henderson and Dillane one day starting together is getting closer.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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