Joe Schmidt was true to his word that the Six Nations is no place for experimentation as he named an experienced squad for next month’s opening games of the championship, although there was one notable and welcome exception.
Schmidt rewarded red-hot form as he elevated uncapped wing Jordan Larmour to Ireland’s squad for the NatWest Six Nations opener against France on February 3 and the home game with Italy seven days later.
In addition to the exciting 20-year-old back-three star, turning in blistering performances in what is still his rookie season, the head coach also brought back another Leinster wing, Fergus McFadden, and Munster centre Rory Scannell after recent omissions, both of whom have sent the Ireland boss timely reminders of their good form in recent weeks.
Indeed, the rewards have been greatest for those provinces performing the best in Europe’s Champions Cup with 18 Leinstermen and 10 Munstermen forming the bulk of the squad with Ulster’s contingent reduced to four, including captain Rory Best, and equal to Connacht’s.
“It’s been great to witness some quality performances from provincial teams over the last seven weeks of European and derby matches, with a number of players performing well,” Schmidt said in an IRFU press release announcing his squad.
“There were some very tight decisions but it’s great to see some competitive depth in a number of positions.”
There was also the added boost of being able to call up Joey Carbery, the fly-half sidelined since an impressive start against Fiji was cut short by a fractured wrist. The 22-year-old playmaker joins Johnny Sexton and Ian Keatley in Schmidt’s cadre of out-halves.
Yet, in naming his 36-player squad, four less than a year ago, there were notable absentees, and not just the 10 players cited as being unavailable through injury, including Garry Ringrose, Jared Payne, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Rhys Ruddock.
For despite the enforced omissions there was still no place for another in-form back, with Schmidt opting to leave out Munster’s Paris-bound full-back Simon Zebo, nor lock Donnacha Ryan, already in situ at Racing 92 but playing very well since hitting the ground running in the Top14 on his return from injury. And neither was the Ireland head coach inclined to have an early look at another in-form second row in Tadhg Beirne, set to leave Scarlets at the end of the current campaign and return to Ireland with Munster.
Those decisions were really no surprise given Schmidt’s decision to select home-based players first unless there are exceptional circumstances and having five fit locks on his panel certainly renders that proviso moot. Nor should Zebo’s absence have come as a shock to the Corkman coming days after he was quoted by French newspaper L’Equipe as effectively saying he could not operate within the rigid structure he believes Ireland plays under the current management.
Zebo’s is a rare talent whose services will be missed by Munster but in Schmidt’s world there is still plenty to be excited about, not least in the potential of Larmour.
A debut in Paris a week on Saturday seems highly unlikely for the Ireland boss will undoubtedly want to field his most experienced operators at Stade de France as the men in green face an unknown quantity in new head coach Jacques Brunel’s first game in charge of Les Bleus.
He must already do without a trio of seasoned back rowers in Heaslip, O’Brien, Ruddock and Tommy O’Donnell as well as fellow casualties prop Finlay Bealham and hooker Niall Scannell, who is on the way back from a rib injury sustained in Munster’s defeat at Ulster on January 1 and could make his comeback this weekend, either against Castres on Sunday or in the B&I Cup game against Ospreys Select in Cork tomorrow night.
The defensive leadership of Jared Payne continues to be denied to Schmidt as the Ulster centre remains out since a premature end to his Lions tour in the summer as a result of headaches. Also missing are Payne’s fellow midfielders Luke Marshall and Garry Ringrose as well as wing Craig Gilroy.
Larmour may have to hope for his opportunity against Conor O’Shea’s Italy, whomust travel to Dublin for the first of Ireland’s three sold-out fixtures at the Aviva just six days after facing defending champions and this year’s favourites England in Rome.
For now, Schmidt needs to prepare his more battle-hardened players for the return to Paris and a chance to avenge the bruising 10-9 defeat in the rain at Stade de France in 2016 and scrum-half Conor Murray is excited by the possibilities, given the provinces’ recent good form in Europe.
“If the provinces are going well and that is a massive reason for fans to get excited about provincial rugby and from that, the better the provinces do, the better chance the national team has of doing well,” Murray said.
One man who won’t be in Paris is France international centre Mathieu Bastareaud, has received a three-week ban for verbally abusing an opponent. Toulon star Bastareaud was cited following the European Champions Cup clash against Italian side Benetton last Sunday after directing homophobic abuse at Benetton forward Sebastian Negri.
The second open session will be at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday, February 27 with tickets for both Athlone and Dublin available on Ticketmaster.ie from February 3 and 15 respectively. Tickets are free but IRFU restrictions will “ensure a wide spread of patrons can be accommodated”.
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