The raft of players coming back into contention for Champions Cup selection this weekend across the provinces bodes well for Joe Schmidt as he prepares to name his first Six Nations 2019 squad this afternoon.
Ireland kick off their title defence against England at Aviva Stadium in 17 days as they begin their bid for back-to-back Grand Slams, and though there remain doubts over the fitness of a handful of players such as Peter O’Mahony, the trend is of players returning, if not this weekend, then very soon afterwards.
Head coach Schmidt will approach his sixth and final Six Nations campaign before walking away from Irish rugby by today naming a squad for rounds one and two numbering, it is understood, between 35 and 39 players. It is likely some of those players will still need to prove their fitness, either with their provinces ahead of this weekend’s final round of European pool action or when they report to Carton House this weekend.
Leinster yesterday ruled out fly-half Johnny Sexton for this Sunday’s trip to Wasps but insisted the 2018 World Player of the Year was nearing full fitness after suffering a knee tendon injury against Munster on December 29. He should not be a concern for Ireland.
Yet Leinster were forced to rule out scrum-half Luke McGrath after he sustained knee ligament damage in last Saturday’s home win over Toulouse. Ireland had to make do without first-choice scrum-half Conor Murray for the November internationals but now they may struggle to get him experienced back-up, with McGrath out of action for up to eight weeks.
Ulster’s John Cooney may return from a back spasm this weekend at Leicester Tigers, but Connacht’s Kieran Marmion, who had ankle surgery in November having started against New Zealand on November 17, could miss the Six Nations opener.
The good news for Schmidt, as well as Leinster, is that Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw, and Sean O’Brien have all returned to training and along with Dan Leavy and Rob Kearney, will be monitored this week ahead of possible returns at Wasps this weekend.
Leinster forwards coach John Fogarty said yesterday of flanker O’Brien: “As usual, he’s firing and ready to go. He’s physically good and that’s a real positive. Sometimes it takes longer to get guys right and it took enough time with him. He’s physically very, very good and mentally Sean is always incredibly good. He’s a very, very competitive person, as everyone knows. He has fitted in at training, he’s adding value in everything he’s doing.
From a famine at scrum-half to a feast of options in midfield, with Henshaw’s imminent return from an injury suffered in November possibly spelling bad news for Munster’s Rory Scannell, who is enjoying some of his finest form at inside centre.
Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, and Ulster’s Will Addison were selected ahead of Scannell in November, while provincial centre partner Chris Farrell will also be in the frame after a blistering return to form following a knee injury sustained during last season’s Six Nations.
“I haven’t really thought about it now,” Scannell said of his selection chances. “November was disappointing, but I’ve just tried to… every game I’ve played since just to put in the best performance I can. After that, if Joe thinks it’s good enough, hopefully I’ll be in, but the centre is probably one of the most competitive positions in the country at the minute with the lads that are out there so I haven’t really thought about it, but hopefully we’ll have a good performance at the weekend, and we’ll see what happens.”