FOLLOWING ON FROM the clean sweep for the provinces over the weekend, yesterday started with a flood of optimism around Ireland’s prospects for the upcoming Six Nations.
By early evening, however, the mood had been somewhat tempered.
First came the feared confirmation that Tadhg Beirne will miss the opening two rounds of the championship due to the knee injury he suffered during the second half of Munster’s win over Exeter on Saturday.
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Quinn Roux was added to Ireland’s squad yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
More surprisingly, Iain Henderson was then ruled out for “several weeks” by Ulster, having sustained a fresh finger injury that is unrelated to the thumb issue he had only just returned from to be man of the match against Leicester last weekend.
The loss of two players shouldn’t make anyone doubt Ireland’s ability to retain their Six Nations title but it’s certainly far from ideal for Joe Schmidt, who is in Portugal with his squad this week.
With a fired-up England embracing the underdog status they will bring to Dublin on 2 February, and Eddie Jones now having the likes of the Vunipola brothers, Manu Tuilagi, Chris Ashton, Dan Cole and others making his squad look stronger, Schmidt needed as many of his best players fit as possible.
In truth, the sense had been that Devin Toner and James Ryan would be Ireland’s starting second row pairing against England in two weekends’ time anyway, but the injuries to Henderson and Beirne now appear to copperfasten that selection.
Henderson or Beirne coming off the bench in the opening round would have been ideal for Schmidt, but that task will likely fall to Ultan Dillane or Quinn Roux, who was added to the squad in place of Beirne.
Ireland indicated yesterday that they will proceed with those four locks for now, rather than adding another player in place of Henderson.
Connacht pair Dillane and Roux have both been in excellent form under new head coach Andy Friend as the western province have enjoyed a resurgence this season.
25-year-old Dillane won the most recent of his 11 Ireland caps in November 2017 against Fiji but suffered a great personal loss when his mother, Ellen, passed away last year.
Dillane last played for Ireland in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
The dynamic Tralee man has been impressive this season, marrying his longstanding dynamism in the carry with much-improved application around the nitty-gritty duties required of any second row at the lineout, maul and ruck.
He nudged ahead of Roux in being named in Schmidt’s original squad for the opening two rounds of the Six Nations but is now joined by his provincial team-mate.
28-year-old Roux was originally signed at Leinster by Schmidt and has won seven Ireland caps under him, justifying his selection on virtually all of those occasions. He was excellent in the win against Italy in Chicago back in November.
A different player to Dillane, Roux’s strengths are based around strong scrummaging at tighthead lock, his maul skills and hitting high numbers of accurate ruck clearouts. His work-rate for Connacht this season has been exemplary, while he has brought greater impact to his tackling.
Connacht have pushed him into a leadership role too, with Roux captaining them for the first time in last weekend’s win away to Bordeaux.
Roux has also been calling the lineout with Connacht, which may make him an attractive bench option for Schmidt – although the fact that Ryan has been growing into the calling role in recent times may negate the importance of having a third caller on the bench.
Dillane’s impact as a replacement has been obvious for Ireland before, perhaps most notably on his debut against England in 2016, when he cut through the English defence with the kind of power Torc Waterfall possesses after heavy rain.
25-year-old Dillane has been in strong form for Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
That said, Roux showed he can offer a different kind of bench impact during last year’s Six Nations as he contributed his set-piece strength and work rate against Italy and Wales.
With Toner and Ryan looking like the probable starters against England, Schmidt’s decision as to a replacement second row will revolve around how he sees the game going tactically.
Dillane and Roux offer different strengths but their form for Connacht will be reassuring for Schmidt even after the loss of Beirne and Henderson.
The Ireland head coach brought 34 players to the Quinta do Lago resort in the Algarve yesterday, where they will avail of state-of-the-art facilities.
Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath remained at home in order to get game time with Leinster in the Pro14 this weekend, while their provincial team-mate Jack Conan didn’t travel as he continues to rehab a shoulder issue.
Andrew Conway stayed with Munster this week after picking up an unspecified knock against Exeter, with Leinster wing Adam Byrne travelling to Portugal in his place.
Ireland will return to Dublin on Friday.
– Originally published at 07.00
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