Conor Murray and Dave Kearney passed fit for Six Nations opener against Italy

Schmidt still looking for best centre pairing since departure of O’Driscoll last season

Conor Murray and Dave Kearney, two constants in last season's victorious Six Nations side, have been passed fit to play against Italy in Rome this Saturday.

Murray trained fully last Friday despite a neck problem while Kearney’s shoulder has sufficiently healed after Ashley Johnson’s midair tackle on January 24th earned the Wasps backrow a three-week suspension.

Still, as precautionary measure factoring in Eoin Reddan's fitness, four scrumhalves are included among the 38 players crammed into Carton House last night. Following illness, Luke Fitzgerald will train this morning as the Leinster wingers put pressure on incumbent number eleven Simon Zebo.

Unavailable

Of the 23 man squad that captured the title in Paris last March only

Chris Henry

(heart surgery), Brian O’Driscoll (retirement), Andrew Trimble (foot) and Fergus McFadden are unavailable. McFadden damaged rib cartilage during Friday’s stuttering defeat to the England Saxons in Cork. He will be treated by Leinster medics.

Craig Gilroy and Mike McCarthy both sustained concussion but McCarthy stays in camp despite stunning himself with a ferocious tackle on English flanker Dave Ewers.

"Jack Conan and Michael Bent did well against the Saxons but will return to Leinster, as will Noel Reid who was restricted to a brief cameo as he was covering a number of positions," said Joe Schmidt via email. "Rob Herring returns to Ulster and will look forward to having an opportunity for further game time."

Positives from that dour 18-9 loss were the sight of Iain Henderson, Keith Earls and especially Sean O'Brien making impressive strides following long term injuries.

O'Brien played 50 minutes, having an immediate impact at the breakdown to put himself firmly into consideration for this weekend.The backrow make-up depends on how much progress the coaches' feel O'Brien has made after only returning to training two weeks ago. Jordi Murphy, Tommy O'Donnell and Dominic Ryan are the other contenders for openside or backrow cover.

Reddan (knee) and Jamie Heaslip (shoulder) are said to be "progressing well and are likely to be available to train fully on Tuesday" while Cian Healy "continues to make very promising progress post his hamstring injury."

Still, as clearly intended, the squad size makes it impossible to predict more than eight of Saturday’s starting XV with any degree of certainty.

Rob Kearney will play fullback, Tommy Bowe on the right wing, Murray at scrumhalf, Peter O'Mahony on the blindside flank, Paul O'Connell in the second row, probably with Devin Toner as Henderson covers lock and six, Rory Best at hooker and Jack McGrath on the loosehead side of the scrum.

Heaslip is the unimpeachable number eight but Leinster’s captain sustained the injury in early January that has required continual treatment and early withdrawal from three games.

Centre conundrum

Centre remains a conundrum. Since O’Driscoll retired Schmidt has picked five separate combinations in five test matches. Notably,

Darren Cave

has made the line-up three times – twice in Argentina alongside McFadden then

Luke Marshall

– with D’Arcy his inside centre against Georgia.

Shaun Payne

and

Robbie Henshaw

faced South Africa while Henshaw, seemingly the heir apparent to the 13 throne, was partnered by D’Arcy in the victory over Australia.

The waters are muddied further by Ian Madigan’s playing 12, ahead of D’Arcy, at Leinster.

That Jonathan Sexton is not being considered might give D'Arcy a reprieve but Payne and Henshaw were Schmidt's initial first choice until Payne got hurt against South Africa.

Ian Keatley or Madigan will wear number ten.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent

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