Joe Schmidt happy to get Ireland charges back to base

Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations title-chasing squad returned to their Co Kildare training base last night under no illusions about the size of the task facing them in Wales next weekend.

Joe Schmidt happy to get Ireland charges back to base

Joe Schmidt’s squad checked back into the team hotel just hours after the Newport Gwent Dragons sealed victory over Ulster at Rodney Parade to complete a Guinness Pro12 clean sweep by the Welsh regions over Irish provinces at the weekend.

The Irish management will release a medical bulletin today, with fly-half Johnny Sexton expected to remain the chief concern for next Saturday’s round four visit to Cardiff.

Sexton was withdrawn during the second half of Ireland’s 19-9 win over England in Dublin eight days ago due to a hamstring “twinge” and was subsequently ruled out of his club Racing Metro’s Top14 win over Grenoble in Paris on Saturday night, no doubt to the relief of head coach Schmidt, who had his playmaker back on home soil for last week’s mini-camp in Belfast.

While Sexton sat out the training sessions, he was at least able to further rest the problematic hamstring while the majority of his fellow participants in the win over the English were also given the weekend off.

Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne will also be reassessed in camp as they continue their recoveries from injury. Heaslip is healing more quickly than anticipated, having fractured sections of three vertebrae when kneed in the back by France’s Pascal Papé in round two.

The No.8 was retained by Schmidt last week, alongside flanker Tommy O’Donnell and the XV which started the England game, and Heaslip took a limited part in the training sessions in Belfast.

“Jamie was taking part in all the running side of things, he won’t take any contact yet,” forwards coach Simon Easterby said of Heaslip last Thursday. “If he reacts positively next week, then there’s no reason why he can’t be available for Wales.”

O’Brien and Payne also took some part in Belfast, as they continued with their return-to-play protocols following concussions suffered against England.

The six replacements named the previous weekend and called upon by their provinces all experienced defeat in Wales.

Connacht were pipped in stoppage time at Cardiff Blues, Munster lost at the Ospreys and Leinster were defeated by the Scarlets. Iain Henderson rounded off the misery by picking up a yellow card in Newport yesterday during the second half of Ulster’s 26-22 defeat.

The Millennium Stadium will offer a very different experience to the regional venues, though Munster wing Simon Zebo, whose skilful juggle of the ball at full speed was one of the highlights of an opening round victory there two years ago, believes Wales’s defeat by England in round one actually makes Ireland’s task more difficult.

“Going over to their home in this tournament where they have already lost is going to be a tough task, because they are not going to want to lose again. We’re going to have to perform to the best of our ability to win,” Zebo said.

“Wales looked good (beating France). They are a very good side. They have proven it. They won the championship a number of times. They’re dangerous and have got dangerous backs.

“We just have to nullify them if we are going to come out on the better end of the scoreboard.”

Ireland will also need to come out on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes, installed as the match official for Cardiff following the withdrawal of Steve Walsh.

Barnes was widely criticised for his handling of Ireland’s victory over France in Dublin, when he awarded 25 penalties, turning the game into a frustrating, stop-start affair.

Worryingly, the English referee tuned up for Six Nations duty by taking charge of his 150th Aviva Premiership game on Friday, when Bath beat Sale Sharks, but not before Barnes whistled up 26 times; he awarded some 10 penalties against Bath while 16 offences were blown up for the Sharks.

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