Joe Schmidt will pore over the performances of Ireland’s provinces before finalising his squad to face Wales on Friday week, and Jared Payne’s comeback from injury will be of particular interest.
Defensive linchpin Payne had not played since suffering a kidney injury during the high-intensity Test against New Zealand in Dublin last November and the centre returned to action in Italy yesterday, coming off the bench in the 65th minute of Ulster’s bonus-point victory away to Zebre in the Guinness PRO12.
Reuniting Payne in midfield with inside centre Robbie Henshaw would restore the highly effective combination that was so crucial to Ireland’s historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago during the autumn internationals, while an adductor problem for Rob Kearney may also give Schmidt the option to install the Ulster player at full-back if he wanted to retain Garry Ringrose at 13.
The all-Leinster pairing of Ringrose and Henshaw has worked well for Ireland in the first three games of the championship, helping to secure a hard-fought 19-9 Six Nations win over France at Aviva Stadium on Saturday night.
Yet head coach Schmidt is keen to keep the pressure on his matchday squad ahead of the March 10 showdown with the Welsh in Cardiff as he seeks to get the winning performance under the lights that will keep Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations title chances alive heading into the final-round visit of England to Dublin on March 18.
That will mean the Irish management scrutinising the efforts of his wider group of players for the provinces, both this past weekend and next, during their PRO12 matches.
“There are another few guys who are potentially going to play for their provinces next week and put their hands up as well,” Schmidt said. “There are some guys that we think have put in some really good performances that haven’t stayed in the matchday squad.
“That is because we had guys going in and out with niggles or they haven’t been able to do the full week’s training and therefore they haven’t been able to fully prepare themselves.
“I think Jared is probably one of them but there are a few other guys in contention as well, the likes of Dave Kilcoyne who is working away pretty hard and Denis Buckley is working hard. You have got Jack (McGrath) and Cian (Healy) there at loosehead and starting at number one, if you work your way down, you could say there is a contest that keeps pushing up under them and you want as much of them all through.
“Jared is one of those numbers, there are a few other guys: Stu McCloskey had a bit of an injury, he comes back into the equation. I think the Welsh backs are particularly big and strong.I wouldn’t be big in favour of matching like for like necessarily because we want to concentrate on what we are doing.
“We want to try to develop what we are doing but there are all sorts of these equations now. What this does afford us is the luxury of taking a big interest in provincial matches.
“That is part of the broader equation so we will probably try to settle on a squad in the mid-30s in the lead up to the Welsh game.”
Schmidt will also be monitoring the reports from his medical staff as to the extent of Kearney’s adductor problems. The full-back felt discomfort there after slipping on the wet Lansdowne Road playing surface and could need a scan if it continues to trouble him.
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