Ireland welcome Rob Kearney back to training today ahead of Friday’s must-win Six Nations clash with Wales as the backline selection conundrums multiply for head coach Joe Schmidt.
With preparations moving up a day for Ireland’s first Championship appointment on a Friday night, Schmidt gathered his 36-man squad into camp at Carton House on Saturday night having added Tommy Bowe to the group following the withdrawal of fellow Ulster wing Andrew Trimble with a hand injury.
Trimble sustained the knock against Treviso on Friday night in Belfast and has been ruled out of the final two matches of the RBS 6 Nations.
There was further bad news with Connacht second row Ultan Dillane ruled out for eight to 10 weeks. He will under surgery this week for an ongoing shoulder issue, according to the Ireland squad update issued yesterday.
The positive for Schmidt, though, was that full-back Kearney has been “progressing well” through his rehabilitation of a groin injury that prompted his early withdrawal from the victory against France on February 25.
His return to training at Carton House today does not necessarily mean he will keep his place in the number 15 jersey for the trip to Cardiff as the Ireland management weigh up whether to reintroduce Jared Payne.
Favoured by Schmidt as his defensive leader at outside centre, Payne’s return to the Ireland line-up for the first time since a serious kidney injury sustained in the November Test against New Zealand would mean breaking up a growing midfield partnership between Leinster team-mates Robbie Henshaw and the incumbent 13 Garry Ringrose.
Payne impressed in his first start since that injury at the weekend, starting at outside centre and scoring Ulster’s opening try in the 19-7 Pro12 win over Zebre on Friday night.
Yet, if Ireland persist with the Henshaw-Ringrose axis, he is equally adept at full-back and could come into the XV instead of Kearney to partner Munster wing duo Simon Zebo and Keith Earls in the back three, their places seemingly assured following Trimble’s injury.
Dillane, whose name was initially missing from the Ireland squad when it was originally named last Thursday, was not in the matchday squad for the 19-9 win over France at Aviva Stadium with Schmidt likely to retain the second-row partnership of Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan for the third match in succession, leaving Iain Henderson on the bench as Ireland head into the cauldron that is the Principality Stadium.
If Wales’s home game with England in round two is to be any gauge then this Friday’s atmosphere is likely to be as electric and ear-piercing as any encounter inside an arena which has had varying fortunes for Ireland.
The men in green will be returning to the scene of Ronan O’Gara’s Grand Slam-clinching drop kick in 2009 for the first time since their 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina and will face a home side feeling some heat of their own after a second loss of their 2017 campaign ended their hopes of a first title since 2013.
Losing to an off-colour England due to a late defensive lapse in a 21-16 reverse was a bitter pill to swallow but the 29-13 defeat at Murrayfield last time out has piled the pressure on interim head coach Rob Howley.
One Welsh newspaper included just four of his players – Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies, Ken Owens and captain Alun Wyn Jones – in a combined Wales/Ireland XV at the weekend and there are calls for selection changes ahead of the Irish visit as concerns move on to preserving Wales’s world ranking inside the top eight ahead of next month’s 2019 World Cup pool draw.
Howley needs to win at least one of the last two games of the Championship campaign, they face France in Paris on March 18, if Wales are to avoid another pool of death scenario in Japan two years hence and one incident during the Scotland game has been seized upon to highlight the perceived lack of direction in the Welsh camp.
Wales, trailing 16-13 in the 51st minute, were awarded a penalty within range of the posts when fly-half Dan Biggar suggested to his captain to kick to the corner. Jones turned down the request, choosing to kick for the points to level the game, only for goalkicker Leigh Halfpenny to decide he did not want the shot, leaving Jones to reverse his decision, with Scotland going on to a first win over the Welsh since 2007.
Not only has Jones’s captaincy been questioned in Wales, there have been calls for Biggar to be replaced by Ospreys fly-half Sam Davies while Wales and Lions legend Barry John suggests switching Halfpenny from full-back to the wing with Liam Williams moving to 15.
With only a win over Italy to show for their campaign, and that without the expected try bonus point, Wales are backed into a corner and Ireland will expect them to come out fighting in Cardiff.
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