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Fully-loaded Ireland in good shape as competition drives standards

THE SUB-ZERO TEMPERATURES had barely lifted as the Ireland players assembled on the training paddock at Carton House on a bitterly cold Tuesday morning, but it didn’t take long for steam to rise into the country air.

Conditions here could not be any different to the sunny, temperate climes England have chosen to fine-tune their preparations in on the continent, but Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have got through two days of hard work at their Maynooth base.

The Ireland huddle after training. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Allowing for the already confirmed injury absentees, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson, Ireland have a clean bill of health for the opening weekend of the Six Nations and Schmidt — all going well in Thursday’s final session — will have a full deck to choose from.

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That is again in contrast to the reshuffle forced upon Eddie Jones by injuries this week, as Brad Shields and Ben Te’o have both been ruled out, while Bath’s Joe Cokanasiga is also unavailable for selection.

With all 38 players in Ireland’s squad fully fit to train today, Simon Easterby said the level of competition within the group continues to increase as Thursday’s team announcement draws closer — and that’s driving standards even further.

There are a number of fascinating selection calls to be made in the next 24 hours, although Schmidt will already be firm in his mind on the matchday 23 he will deploy against Jones’ visitors on Saturday.

Although there are no fresh injury concerns emanating from last week’s warm-weather camp in Portugal, and indeed two tough sessions this week, question marks remain over the match fitness of a number of players.

Rob Kearney has endured an on-off season with injuries and was evidently rusty whilst playing for Leinster last week, while Johnny Sexton has not played for four weeks since suffering a knee injury at Thomond Park.

“I think certain players need game-on-game to get back to a certain level but Johnny is probably not one of those,” Easterby said. “He has the ability to play fresh as it were, to run a team, know his detail, be across everything but also feel like he’s got that conditioning and fitness under his belt.

“Yes, match fitness is probably second to none but I certainly think we trust the medics and the conditioners that have worked with him, not just in Leinster but here as well to get the balance right in terms of his work and the ability to get him back up to speed.

“Certain individuals maybe need a bit more but I don’t think Johnny is one of those.”

Another player who is short on game-time heading into this week is Sean O’Brien, with the Leinster flanker playing just 55 minutes since breaking his arm during the November international against Argentina.

But the 31-year-old is pushing for a starting berth in the back row against England, and CJ Stander admits O’Brien is the type of player that can be pitched straight back into the action.

“He can pull on a scrum cap and jump straight back into the deep end,” the Munster number eight said. “I think he was grateful to get 55 minutes [for Leinster v Wasps].

“There is a standard expected here of all the players if you are selected, you give 100% for the jersey, and I think he is a great man to do that.” 

Stander, meanwhile, is relishing the prospect of coming up against the fit-again Billy Vunipola in what promises to be a colossal match-up in the back row battle.

CJ Stander speaking to media today. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“He is a power athlete,” Stander continued. “He has footwork to him as well and soft hands. A lot of people think he is just going to run over people, but he is actually an all-rounder.

“If you look at what he has done for Saracens this year, he is playing quite well. It’s a good match-up.”

After Tuesday’s work was completed, the Ireland squad broke up for tomorrow’s day off before they’ll return to camp on Wednesday evening for the business end of the week, starting with Thursday’s key session. 

Coming off the back of a superb season in 2018, as Schmidt’s side rose to second in the world rankings, anticipation and expectation is building ahead of the Grand Slam defence, in this year of all years.

While admitting ‘it’s a good place to be at the moment’, Easterby says this squad are so driven and focused on the task in hand that they don’t pay much attention to the outside noise, including the verbal jibes coming from the England camp.

“Every team strives for depth and quality throughout every position and we’re no different,” Easterby added. “Certainly, the quality of the squad that we’ve got here in Carton at the moment is strong and as you say, that’s driving the standards and everyone is being kept on their toes.

“We can’t control those expectations from outside the group, they’re from media and fans and we want to continue that. It’s not something we can control. We’re a very driven group.

“We’re extremely keen to kick off the Six Nations by getting a performance in and a result at the weekend. That’s all we’re focusing on.

“We work really hard, we have a really good focus within the group, we have had a consistent squad for a good while. They’ve seen some ups and downs, we’ve seen both sides of that.

“We’re pretty comfortable that we don’t need to worry too much about what’s expected of us, it’s about what we expect of each other.” 

Join us to preview the Six Nations with Simon Zebo, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey on Thursday @7pm in Liberty Hall Theatre Dublin.