Schmidt's squad points to Sexton’s likely return
Squad of 40 selected for next month’s opening two games in Scotland and Italy
Johnny Sexton in action against Castres in the European Champions Cup. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The presence of Paddy Jackson as the only back-up at outhalf to Johnny Sexton is a strong indication that Sexton will be fit to assume the number 10 jersey when Ireland begin their 2017 RBS Six Nations campaign with a decidedly difficult game away to Scotland on Saturday week.
Sexton’s latest mishap, the calf injury which forced his departure 21 minutes into Leinster’s 24-all draw away to Castres on Friday night, did not appear to look terribly serious, and the presumption must be that the outhalf has been in contact with Joe Schmidt over the weekend.
Admittedly, the cupboard is a little bare at outhalf. Joey Carbery, next in the pecking order, judging by the November Test window when he won his first two caps off the bench, has just returned to training after recovering from the ankle injury he sustained in Leinster’s win away to Northampton in round three of the European Champions Cup last month.
Ian Madigan, like Marty Moore, will clearly only be called upon in the event of an injury crisis. Besides, he would not be available to train at Ireland’s Carton House base with the 40-man squad announced by Schmidt on Monday as his Bordeaux Bégles team play Clermont Auvergne this Sunday in the Top 14.
In all other positions, Schmidt has covered his options, taken out an insurance policy against injuries over the course of the tournament and perhaps even given a nod to the 2019 World Cup by effectively naming three players in every position.
In this, he has rewarded form, with the squad’s trio of uncapped players – Niall and Rory Scannell, along with Andrew Conway – swelling Munster’s representation notably, up to a healthy 13, which is not far off the 15 players picked from Leinster. There are eight from Ulster and four from Connacht.
In addition to the three uncapped players, there are seven players with just one cap apiece, five of whom were among the eight debutants in the November win over Canada. Indeed, it is a measure of the comparative riches in the backrow and back three that, of the players who made their debuts against Canada, the only ones not included in the squad are Jack O’Donoghue and Niyi Adeolokun.
Jack Conan, capped once against Scotland in the World Cup match of August 2015, and Stuart McCloskey, capped against England at Twickenham last season, are rewarded for their form with recalls. The squad has been picked for the opening two games, away to Scotland and Conor O’Shea’s Italy on February 4th and 11th.
Attention now switches to the likely composition of the match-day 23, to be announced next Tuesday, for the Murrayfield encounter against a Scotland team buoyed by Glasgow’s qualification for the European Champions Cup knockout stages for the first time.
The expectation remains that the starting XV and much of the bench will fall along fairly predictable lines, based on the established pecking order of last November.
Hence, a frontrow of Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong is likely to be backed up by Cian Healy, James Tracy and Finlay Bealham. Donnacha Ryan, back to his best, is possibly ahead of Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane as a prospective partner to Devin Toner in the secondrow, but the coaching staff’s biggest, trickiest conundrum, as is often the case, will be perming a backrow and replacement from the eight named in the squad.
Seán O’Brien, if fit and well, would probably start, and it’s hard to see how Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander will not both be accommodated again, given their form. However, O’Brien’s relative lack of rugby must be a concern. He has only played nine games in total this season after his latest tweak, to his hamstring, ruled him out of Leinster’s concluding pool games against Montpellier and Castres.
Josh van der Flier is the likeliest alternative, while Peter O’Mahony, despite his barnstorming return to form with Munster (and indeed Ireland, as a replacement in the win over Australia), could conceivably have to settle for a place on the bench. Meanwhile, there may be no place at all to begin with for Dan Leavy, Tommy O’Donnell and Conan.
Kieran Marmion is feeling the heat from Luke McGrath as back-up to Conor Murray, but is still favoured to be Murray’s understudy, while the Leinster axis of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose look likely to reprise their provincial partnership in the absence of Jared Payne. Given that he was 24th man against Australia, the ever-improving Rory Scannell looks to be ahead of Luke Marshall and McCloskey, although he might have to settle for the same role in Edinburgh.
Finally, as in the backrow, Schmidt and company have to perm three from eight in the back three, along with one on the bench. Most likely it will be three from Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls, with Kearney’s experience and performances in November, notably in Chicago, meaning the in-form Zebo will be accommodated on the wing, perhaps with Trimble, and Earls on the bench.
THREE POTENTIAL BOLTERS
The 25-year-old product of Newbridge College and former Ireland under-20 hooker could be next in line as back-up to Rory Best after also displacing the hamstrung Sean Cronin as Leinster’s starting hooker. With his huge workrate, good carrying and wholly committed physicality, he made a try-scoring debut against Canada in November. If not him, then it will be the upwardly mobile Niall Scannell who, like his brother, keeps progressing.
Like Tracy, the 23-year-old former Ireland under-20 scrumhalf, from the increasingly productive St Michael’s conveyor belt, has made rapid strides this season with his distribution and breaks, and also made his debut against Canada. Last Friday’s performance was a rare blip, but even so Kieran Marmion’s greater familiarity with the squad ought to see him understudy Conor Murray at Murrayfield anyway.
Another gifted graduate of the provincial academy and the Irish under-20 system, Scannell, after last season’s breakthrough campaign, has flourished even more this season in between Tyler Bleyendaal and Jaco Taute. With his skilful kicking/passing/running game and versatility – he can play at 10, 12, 13 and 15 – Scannell is knocking louder and louder on the door, as witnessed in his presence as 24th man against Australia last time out.