Joe Schmidt will unveil his new captain tomorrow as he names the squad he hopes can get Ireland’s bid for a third successive RBS 6 Nations title off to a flying start.
Head coach Schmidt is set to announce a 35 or 36-player group from which he will select matchday squads for the home opener against Wales at the Aviva Stadium on February 7, and the trip to France six days later.
It is a tough start for the defending champions in their first Test since the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina on October 18.
When Schmidt gathers his players for the beginning of Six Nations camp next Monday, he will have seen them as a group for just 24 hours in the New Year since their tournament exit in Cardiff.
He had 48 players at Carton House for that overnight camp, but with no Wolfhounds game this year due to the compressed post-World Cup schedule, he will not get the chance to assess his fringe contenders at first hand.
He must also plan without a long-term injured trio of frontliners in Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, and Peter O’Mahony as well as former captain Paul O’Connell, while trusted tighthead Mike Ross will likely miss the first game as he recovers from the hamstring tear he suffered when Leinster faced Toulon last month.
The effects of that World Cup campaign clearly linger although Ireland’s player welfare programme should have ensured relatively fresh legs since October without denying the provinces too many of their internationals.
It will still be a very different camp, though, given the absences which also include former defence coach Les Kiss, now Ulster’s director of rugby.
That will add to the workload as the IRFU wait for Andy Farrell to start work as the Australian’s replacement ahead of the summer tour to South Africa, with indications that the vacuum will be filled by Schmidt himself and forwards coach Simon Easterby, who worked as Scarlets’ defence coach before taking the top job at the Welsh region.
Personnel-wise, the expectation is that Bowe’s absence due to the cruciate knee ligament injury he suffered against Argentina will be balanced by the inclusion of fellow Ulster wing Andrew Trimble, an unlucky casualty of the World Cup selection race due to Schmidt’s feeling he had lacked sufficient game time after missing the whole of last season with a toe injury.
There should be similar compensation for O’Mahony’s unavailability with the inclusion of his replacement as Munster captain CJ Stander, the newly-qualified South African-born back rower whose reputation as both a leader and performer have been enhanced through his province’s tough times over the last two months.
A man-of-the-match performance against Stade Francais last Saturday came in front of the watching Schmidt at Thomond Park as did try-scoring turns from Keith Earls and Simon Zebo and a strong showing from Tommy O’Donnell, now hitting his straps since returning from the shoulder dislocation that ended his World Cup hopes.
Stuart McLoskey’s form in Ulster’s midfield this season has been sensational and should be enough to see the 23-year-old earn a place in Schmidt’s plans, with Robbie Henshaw set to make his comeback from a hand injury over the next fortnight.
There has been similar clamour for the promotion of Leinster outside-centre Garry Ringrose, who has so far been living up to long-held predictions of greatness, not least from Brian O’Driscoll.
His second-half break from deep against Bath at the RDS on Saturday was an exciting signal of Ringrose’s potential and the academy starlet’s chances of celebrating his 21st birthday at Carton House next Tuesday seem to have to improved rapidly.
Yet there is still a round of European pool games to go this weekend before Schmidt names his matchday squad for the visit of Warren Gatland’s Wales to the Aviva, which makes this squad announcement perhaps a little too advanced for the head coach’s liking.
He likes to keep his options open and will be mindful that changes may be forced on him given the attritional nature of the current season.
That will apply too to his choice of captain, with Rory Best the pundits’ favourite in advance of the official Six Nations launch in London a week tomorrow. A lot could happen before that, as Schmidt will only be too aware.
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