By Brendan O’Brien
Assistant coach Simon Easterby insists Ireland are well stocked for cover at centre if the experienced Jared Payne fails to overcome injury in time for the Six Nations meeting with England in Twickenham this Saturday.
Payne was the only new injury concern revealed in camp this week. Easterby stated on Tuesday afternoon that the Ulster centre had trained “85-90%” on Monday before sitting out the latest session in order to receive treatment from the physios for his hamstring injury.
Wednesday is a day off for Joe Schmidt’s squad which means that the Kiwi-born back will have to prove his fitness on the paddock on Thursday, although missives from Ireland camp on fitness matters have been hard to swallow in times past.
Payne himself was pictured wearing a moon boot during Ireland’s World Cup clash with Italy at the Olympic Stadium last year and, while team officials insisted he was an option for the next week’s meeting with France, he was subsequently ruled out for months with a fractured foot.
So, it is a case of wait and see and digest updates with liberal pinches of salt.
His loss, should it come to that, would be a major blow for a side already missing leaders such as the retired Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, especially given the 13 has such an important role in welding shut Ireland’s defence out wide.
The uncapped Stuart McCloskey has his considerable number of backers given the Ulsterman’s impressive form at centre this season, though Easterby was keen to widen the scope of Ireland’s options in the sector when the focus narrowed to that one candidate.
“We have a few combinations we could run with,” said Easterby. “Jared has been excellent in that position at 13 in attack but really in defence he has been really dominant in that area. He took an early bump against the French, but he dug in really hard to stay on the pitch.
“We have other players that can fill in in that position. Earlsy (Keith Earls) has played there and Luke Marshall has played 13 as well. We are keen to give Jared the opportunity to come through on Thursday. We can make a decision after that on what combinations best fit if he doesn’t make it.”
Robbie Henshaw could also slide over from inside to outside-centre should his midfield partner sit it out and Easterby expressed every confidence in the 22-year old’s ability to handle an unfamiliar task if that is what is required.
As it stands, Jonathan Sexton (ankle, neck and shoulder) is said to be fully recovered from his various ailments while Keith Earls (concussion) has been back training since last week and Simon Zebo (knee) is again an option having just failed to make it for the French game.
Just as important to Ireland’s ambitions this week – perhaps more so given the problems at scrum time against the French particularly – are the returns to the camp of Leinster props Mike Ross and Cian Healy from their own injury absences.
“Going into this game, having those guys available to us allows us to have that little bit more experience in the front row, which we will need,” said Easterby. “We want to stay positive at scrum-time, we want to try and play off the scrum.
“It’s the best ball to play off in terms of having 16 players tied down to one position. The lineout is different again because you have players coming off the back and some teams drop a player. We focus on being positive there, as England do.
“Cian and Rossy coming back into the mix will only add to the scrum we already have in place.”