Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will today wait for a clean bill of health on his returning internationals before naming his squad for the Six Nations clash with England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Schmidt has delayed naming his squad for what he considers the toughest game of the campaign as Ireland bid for a first Triple Crown since the Grand Slam season of 2009, until he receives an update on the well-being of all his players as they return to the Irish camp at Carton House after a weekend of club and provincial action.
Of his frontline starters from the opening victories over Scotland and Wales, only Johnny Sexton saw duty as Racing Metro used the former Leinster man off the bench in their French Top 14 win over Bayonne.
Sexton had hoped to be an unused substitute in Paris on Saturday at worst but those plans were scuppered when proposed starting fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez reported sick 48 hours before kick off. Sexton put in a 20-minute shift as a replacement for Benjamin Dambielle, and appeared to finish unscathed.
Neither were there headaches from the Ulster camp after the their home game with Scarlets was postponed on Friday night, although Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson in particular would all have benefited from the opportunity to impress Schmidt.
With fellow Ulsterman Dan Tuohy ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations after fracturing an arm against Wales, a bench place for a second row behind captain Paul O’Connell and fellow starter Devin Toner is up for grabs and Henderson has missed the chance to impress as the more experienced Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan put their hands up for Leinster and Munster respectively at the weekend.
McCarthy got some more game time under his belt having returned from a facial injury the previous week as he featured in Leinster’s RDS victory over Newport Gwent Dragons on Friday, a game which saw scrum-half Eoin Reddan reappear following a calf injury and loosehead prop Jack McGrath increase the pressure on Cian Healy with a try-scoring, man-of-the-match performance.
In Munster colours, back-rower Tommy O’Donnell continued his good form which saw him make his Six Nations debut off the bench against Scotland and again in the Wales game with a try against Zebre, while Simon Zebo did his hopes of a recall no harm, the wing scoring two first-half tries in the 36-8 victory.
Most satisfying for Schmidt, though, will have been Ryan’s 68-minute turn on his comeback from a knee injury, with Munster head coach Rob Penney hopeful both can join those Munster men who have already seen action in the championship, namely O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and O’Donnell.
“Hopefully we’ll lose two or three [more players to the squad],” Penney said immediately after the Zebre game. “But I haven’t communicated with Joe. I’ve got a missed call so hopefully that’s something positive. You know, we’ll just react to that when that happens and wish those guys all the best.”
Of Zebo, he added: “He’s still working his way back to his best form but he’s mercurial. He’s got some uniqueness and he did it again tonight. And yeah, he’s obviously a great player and when the time’s right I’m sure he’ll get the opportunity [to play for Ireland again].”
Ryan’s case for inclusion benefited from his proven Test credentials, Penney suggested, as did a solid performance against Zebre for which a missed tackle, one of three by Munster players for the Italians’ try, was the only blemish.
“Donnacha Ryan is an experienced beast. Last year he held that Irish pack together just about single handedly.
“If they require him he’ll do a great job up there for them, I know. They’ll realise that, you can’t replace that sort of experience that he has and having him in the mix would be really valuable to them right now.
“He did some really good things [against Zebre]. I wouldn’t say he was rusty, yeah he missed that tackle but he got himself in a good position to carry a couple of times and his quality of work when he was tackled, and his ball presentation was excellent.
“Lineout option-taking was superb. Yeah, you wouldn’t realise that he just had 12 weeks off.
“For me that game will do him the world of good and he’ll be ready.”
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