Simon Zebo set to replace Rob Kearney at fullback against Italy

Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw are set to be reunited in midfield by Joe Schmidt

Jared Payne is set to link up with Robbie Henshaw for Ireland’s game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Jared Payne is set to link up with Robbie Henshaw for Ireland’s game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

 

Simon Zebo and Jared Payne are set to be restored to a more familiar looking Irish line-up around lunchtime on Thursday, when Joe Schmidt unveils Ireland’s starting XV to face Italy on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

Rob Kearney’s hamstring problems, thus far shrouded in mystery, appear to have ruled him out, thereby making way for Zebo’s return.

There had been speculation that Payne might be restored at fullback, but Zebo has effectively become Kearney’s understudy this season.

Kearney’s lower back and hamstring problems have actually resulted in Zebo making five starts for Ireland this season, all of them at fullback: against Scotland and England in the World Cup matches, against Romania and Italy in the World Cup itself, and then against Wales in the Six Nations opener at the Aviva.

As his wont, Zebo mixed the sublime with the not-so-sublime against Wales, though from early in the game he was hampered by a leg injury that ultimately ruled him out of the match against France in Paris six days later.

Zebo’s physicality, aerial prowess and backfield coverage do not compare favourably with Kearney. Still, against Wales the Munsterman added another attacking dimension with his well-timed late entries into the line, both close-in and wide-out, as well as one stunning counter-attack.

Saturday’s forecast is favourable, the kind of occasion in which Zebo’s attacking skills could flourish.

Midfield preference

Payne’s partnership with Robbie Henshaw has long been Schmidt’s go-to midfield option since the retirements of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy. Only injuries have limited their time together.

Payne is regarded as the defensive linchpin – witness his performances against Wales and, especially, France, despite being incapacitated by the hamstring injury that ruled him out of the England game. So it will come as no surprise if he is restored alongside Henshaw to the exclusion of Stuart McCloskey.

Otherwise, the starting XV is expected to remain intact, with Josh van der Flier thus making his home debut in an unchanged pack after an increasingly influential first test in Twickenham. Ultan Dillane looks likely to make his home debut off the bench after his high impact debut as a replacement in Twickenham.

The only other issues remain the composition of the remainder of the pitch, where heretofore Schmidt & co have tended to rotate the back-up hookers and scrum-halves.

Indeed, the case for including Sean Cronin’s dynamic ball-carrying off the bench has always seemed compelling, and is a proven weapon for endgames.

Whatever about that, the scale of the calf strain that prevented Eoin Reddan from training this week is unclear. In any event, this will likely lead to a recall to the match- day squad for Kieran Marmion. The Connacht scrum-half looked very sharp in orchestrating much of Connacht’s running game in their win away to Edinburgh last Friday.

As ever, there is a queue of backs competing for the No 23 jersey, namely McCloskey, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy and Fergus McFadden.

IRELAND (possible v Italy): S Zebo; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, JHeaslip.

Replacements: R Strauss, C Healy, N White, U Dillane, R Ruddock, K Marmion, I Madigan, F McFadden.

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