Payne back in Schmidt’s equation but others knocking on Ireland door too

THE RETURN OF Jared Payne from a serious kidney injury yesterday, earlier than first expected, will have been watched closely by Joe Schmidt.

The Ireland head coach would have been buried in analysis of his own side’s 19-9 win against France for most of the day, of course, but he took time out of the schedule to watch as Payne played 20 minutes off the bench in Ulster’s 40-17 win over Zebre.

Payne last played for Ireland against Australia. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There were other Ireland internationals involved in the northern province’s victory, and potentially some stars of the future, but Payne has been a key player under Schmidt at Test level.

The alarming injury he suffered against Australia in November has had the 31-year-old sidelined ever since, though his recovery has been swifter than initially thought.

With Ulster in Pro12 action again next weekend against Treviso, Payne will have another opportunity to build his fitness and we may see him back in the Ireland fold before the end of the Six Nations.

Garry Ringrose has been excellent in the 13 shirt in Payne’s absence, but the Ulsterman’s ability to play at fullback is also attractive for Schmidt.

With a Six Nations rest weekend ahead, Schmidt now has time to think before announcing an extended squad of around 35 players to prepare for the visit to Wales on 10 March. Payne is just one of the names who comes into the fold.

“I think everyone does in the context of there are another few guys who are potentially going to play for their provinces next week and put their hands up as well,” said Schmidt.

“You know, there are some guys that we think have put in some really good performances that haven’t stayed in the matchday squad. That is because we had guys going in and out with niggles, or they haven’t been able to do the full week’s training and therefore they haven’t been able to fully prepare themselves.

“I think Jared is probably one of them but there are a few other guys in contention as well, the likes of Dave Kilcoyne, who is working away pretty hard, and Denis Buckley is working hard.

Schmidt is keeping a close eye on the provinces. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You have got Jack [McGrath] and Cian [Healy] there at loosehead and starting at number one, if you work your way down, you could say there is a contest that keeps pushing up under them and you want as much of them all through the numbers.

“Jared is one of those numbers, there is a few other guys. Stu McCloskey had a bit of an injury, he comes back into the equation.

“I think the Welsh backs are particularly big and strong. I wouldn’t be big in favour of matching like for like necessarily, because we want to concentrate on what we are doing.

“We want to try to develop what we are doing but you know there is all sorts of these equations now. What this does afford us is the luxury of taking a big interest in provincial matches.”

While there are plenty of players knocking on Ireland’s door, it doesn’t appear that there are too many vacancies at Schmidt’s inn.

Rob Kearney suffered an adductor injury against the French but Schmidt stated a clean bill of health otherwise, as Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Trimble came through their returns from injury.

Schmidt has previously favoured settled starting teams over the course of the championship when possible, so it would be a surprise to see major changes for that Wales clash.

Cian Healy is, however applying major pressure to Jack McGrath in the loosehead slot, while Iain Henderson had his best performance for some time off the bench against les Bleus.

Cian Healy is pushing Jack McGrath at loosehead. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Schmidt will consider the balance of his back row once again, too, as O’Mahony presses his claim with superior lineout skills to what his competitors can offer.

So far, Ireland have avoided picking up a lengthy injury list in this Six Nations and their form is improving with each game. In theory, they are in fine shape ahead of the closing two rounds of the championship.

“Theory is great… and expectation is great,” says Schmidt. “In theory, you want to be able to work your way through with that group. And if that group gets more time to gel more time to be cohesive.

“So in theory you hope that that is the case, but Wales will put on a different sort of pressure than France did.

“As I said, they have got very big backs, they are very fast and strong as well. They bring a slightly different equation, so while you might be making progress in one facet of the game, other facets of the game then get tested by different opponents.”

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