Joe Schmidt unlikely to finalise team until injury picture clears
Seán O’Brien poised to start in Paris but make-up of back three remains up in air
Flanker Seán O’Brien is expected to return to the Ireland team against France having recovered from a hamstring injury. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The consequences of last Sunday’s Celtic Demolition Derby has left Joe Schmidt’s team selection in a state of flux.
Ireland were obliged to make 170-plus tackles in an exhausting encounter which was notable for a ball-in-play time of over 39 minutes, and realistically it looks unlikely that even the Irish head coach can finalise his hand for Saturday’s Parisian rendezvous with France before today’s lunchtime team announcement.
One almost certain change will see the return of Seán O’Brien, who has trained fully since Tuesday’s light, 45-minute workout at Ireland’s Carton House base after recovering from the hamstring strain that ruled him out of the draw with Wales.
Schmidt maintained all along that O’Brien could have played last Sunday, but that would have run the risk of him aggravating the injury and being sidelined for perhaps six weeks.
Given his importance, he looks sure to start, most probably as a direct swap for Tommy O’Donnell.
The Munster openside has been one of the unluckiest Irish players not to earn more of a run in the squad, or at any rate the team, over the last couple of seasons.
But either he or Rhys Ruddock, who would also fall into that category, are liable to miss out on the match-day squad, albeit both might travel to Paris.
It would seem unlikely that CJ Stander would be demoted after his trojan debut, much less the hugely influential Jamie Heaslip.
“There will probably be one or two changes, maybe even three or four, mainly because it’s a bit of a tough battle,” said Schmidt an hour or so after last Sunday’s bruiser with the Welsh, but the fallout from that game has possibly curtailed that notion.
For example, Schmidt had maintained that Cian Healy and Mike Ross “could come into the mix” but that was soon revised after their return to training with Leinster on Sunday.
Hence, the scope for change in the tight five has been greatly reduced, unless Schmidt and co reckon Donnacha Ryan might have more to offer the Irish set-pieces than Mike McCarthy.
The half-backs and the midfield look pretty much cast in stone, unless both Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo were ruled out, in which case Jared Payne might be shifted to fullback.
Otherwise it seems likely the Robbie Henshaw-Payne combination will be given another outing, which would, after all, still only be their eighth Test together.
But it is in the back three where any amount of permutations are, as usual, possible and where the situation is further complicated by Andrew Trimble (shoulder), Simon Zebo (knee) and Keith Earls (concussion) all picking up knocks last week.
Furthermore, Rob Kearney only returned to non-contact training on Tuesday as he continues his rehabilitation from a hamstring strain.
Hence, it all depends on the condition of the squad when they report for this morning’s training session – the squad’s only full run out this week.
Of that quartet, Earls looks the most doubtful, while Zebo’s knee – heavily strapped from the first half – appears to be a cause of concern as well.
All things being equal, Kearney would probably come back in, with the wingers retained, or in the event of Earls failing to prove his fitness, either Zebo or Dave Kearney being chosen on the wing.
IRELAND (possible): R Kearney; Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Zebo; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best (capt), White, McCarthy, Toner, Stander, O’Brien, Heaslip.
Replacements: J Cronin, S Cronin, Furlong, Ryan, O’Donnell, Reddan, Madigan, D Kearney.