January 2, 2023 | News | No Comments
JOE SCHMIDT HAS a number of selection calls to ponder over the next month, including the left wing position.
While the Kiwi head coach has a decision to make regarding Ireland’s 10 shirt for the opening game of the Six Nations against Italy on 7 February, his wide options look well stocked.
Tommy Bowe would appear to be a strong favourite to retain the 14 jersey after two tries in two starts there in November, but the 11 shirt looks altogether more open.
Simon Zebo certainly put his best foot forward against South Africa and Australia, but the Munster man is not short on fellow contenders. Among the possibilities for Schmidt is the fit-again Dave Kearney, who was excellent in last year’s Six Nations success.
Having returned from a lengthy knee injury late in November, the Leinster man has now racked up six 80-minute appearances and is beginning to look closer to his best.
The likes of Zebo, Ulster’s in-form Craig Gilroy, Munster’s returning Keith Earls and Andrew Conway provide competition for that coveted Ireland slot, but even within the Leinster group Kearney highlights the fight for places.
Fergus McFadden is on a similar trajectory of form to Kearney after his own injury problems, while Zane Kirchner has plentiful experience and Darragh Fanning has been backed by head coach Matt O’Connor this season.
“[Ireland] is always at the back of your head, but my main focus at the moment is performing for Leinster and getting on the team sheet,” says Kearney.
“There’s a lot of competition for the Ireland backs and for the Leinster backs, nothing really changes.”
Kearney last played for Ireland in the Six Nations-clinching game against France in Paris. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
With his focus on Leinster at present, Kearney agrees that a crucial fortnight lies ahead for the province, with Champions Cup fixtures against Castres and Wasps to come, decisive games in the race for a quarter-final.
Easing of the injury problems in Leinster has been helpful, even if Jack McGrath’s three-week suspension came at an inopportune moment.
“I think we’ve been luckier in the past few months with guys coming back from injuries,” says Kearney of the personnel boosts.
“There’s been a lot of leaders who’ve been out who’ve come back into the frame and that brings confidence back too.
The 25-year-old admits there “probably is a bit more pressure” on the squad at this stage of the season, although Leinster have grown accustomed to managing expectations. More pertinent in this week’s build-up is sharpening the backline’s armoury.
Last week McFadden spoke of the need for Leinster’s backs to start delivering tries, a sentiment Kearney echoes:
“It was good to get four tries against Cardiff, but as a backline we need to score more tries. Hopefully it’ll be a similar game plan this weekend, get the ball a bit wider and the backs can get a bit more ball.”
Having bided his time on the sidelines for Leinster and Ireland, Kearney will want as much of that possession heading in his direction as possible.
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