Jared Payne’s return will have Ringrose looking over shoulder
Leinster man’s place looks secure but competition intensifying in squad
Ireland’s Jared Payne had been sidelined since the November meeting with Australia. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Joe Schmidt would have taken this. The Ireland head coach has named a 37-man squad for Ireland’s concluding games against Wales and England from a position of such rude health that Josh van der Flier remains the only casualty from the initial 40-man group for the opening two rounds.
Most significantly, the 34 which were named for the French game have been supplemented by the return of the fit-again Jared Payne and Joey Carbery, with Payne granted an opportunity to force his way into the match-day squad for Friday week’s meeting with Wales at the Principality Stadium.
Perhaps significantly, Payne has been named at outside centre in Ulster’s starting line-up for their game at home to Treviso on Friday night. The 31-year-old New Zealand-born Payne had been sidelined since the November meeting with Australia, when he was forced off at half-time with what transpired to be a serious kidney injury.
This sidelined him until an earlier than expected recovery last Sunday, when he played the last 20 minutes of Ulster’s bonus-point win away to Zebre. That Payne has been selected at outside centre rather than fullback for Ulster suggests the Ireland management team are relatively confident about Rob Kearney’s well-being, although there was still no formal word on the fullback’s scan on the abductor injury which forced him off in the 51st minute of Ireland’s 19-9 win over France last weekend.
However, it is understood that the scan revealed only a minor strain and, as rumoured last Monday, Kearney is expected to train fully from Monday onwards.
This in turn suggests Garry Ringrose has more reason to look over his shoulder, although it seems hard to envisage the 22-year-old Test rookie making way for Payne. Although he slipped off one tackle on Gael Fickou and was bounced (along with others) by the under-used Noa Nakaitaci, Ringrose was often the fulcrum of Ireland’s backline attack. He carried 15 times (only CJ Stander, naturally, and Jamie Heaslip carried more) for 32 metres, making one clean break and often looking Ireland’s likeliest game-breaker.
Ringrose has played in Ireland’s last six games since his debut against Canada, scoring classic centre tries against Australia and Italy with in-and-out lines reminiscent of you-know-who. He has started the last four Tests since replacing Robbie Henshaw in the 11th minute against New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium. He partnered Payne for the remainder of that game and for the first half against the Wallabies, and has since built a growing partnership with Henshaw, his Leinster midfield sidekick, in Ireland’s three Six Nations outings.
Since making his debut off the bench in that historic win over New Zealand in Chicago, Carbery won his second cap as a replacement outhalf a week later before earning his third as a 31st-minute replacement for Andrew Trimble against the Wallabies at fullback in that makeshift backline.
Sidelined since Leinster’s win away to Northampton in early December until last month, Carbery has since also underlined his versatility by switching between outhalf and fullback in his province’s last three games.
The hugely talented 21-year-old returns to the squad at the expense of Ian Keatley, although the odds appear against him forcing his way into the matchday squad. The other player who misses out from the 34-man squad named for the French game is Tommy Bowe.
This means that apart from the aforementioned van der Flier, the only players missing from the 40-man squad for the opening two rounds of the Six Nations are Finlay Bealham, Billy Holland, Stuart McCloskey, Rory Scannell and Bowe, who was a replacement against Scotland.
In addition to Payne, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble will also start for Ulster on Friday night at fullback and wing, while Luke Marshall has been selected on the bench. By comparison, Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson will not be involved.
As for the Connacht quartet, Dillane and Quinn Roux will not be involved in their province’s game at home to Zebre, whereas Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O’Halloran will be on the bench at the Sportsground.
With the squad assembling at the Carton House on Saturday, by contrast it seems unlikely that many, if any at all, of the 15 Leinster players and 11 Munster players named in the squad will feature in their provinces’ Pro12 games at home to the Scarlets and away to Cardiff respectively.
Ultimately, too, despite the increasing options available to the Ireland coaching ticket, and on the back of successive wins, it would be no surprise if the squad remained unchanged from that which was on duty at home to France.
But, at any rate, Payne is back in the frame.