Ireland give Sexton prognosis
TEAM ANNOUNCEMENT: Ireland coach Joe Schmidt on Wednesday showed his hand in what will be his last Six Nations championship.
Schmidt named a squad of 38 players for the opening two rounds of the tournament.
He revealed that Johnny Sexton is making good progress in his recovery from injury.
Sexton, the reigning World Player of the Year, has been troubled by a knee tendon issue and will miss Leinster’s final Champions Cup pool match at Wasps this past Sunday.
But Schmidt says Sexton’s presence in the squad means the flyhalf is on course to feature when Ireland start the defence of their Six Nations title at home to England on February 2 – before meeting Scotland at Murrayfield seven days later.
“Johnny Sexton is making good progress, while [flyhalves] Joey Carbery and Jack Carty have both performed consistently well so far this season,” Schmidt said.
Centre Robbie Henshaw has recovered from a hamstring strain to take his place in the squad.
Scrumhalf Luke McGrath is likely to miss the entire tournament after damaging knee ligaments, but Conor Murray is back after a neck injury.
With Kieran Marmion also missing through injury, Ulster’s John Cooney and Connacht’s uncapped Caolin Blade offer scrumhalf options.
On the centres and back-three positions, Schmidt added: “Bundee Aki and a fresh and fully fit Robbie Henshaw squeeze out Rory Scannell, who was great for Munster last Friday, and Stu McCloskey, who continues to give Ulster gain line as well as defensive solidity.
“At outside centre, Tom Farrell has forced his way into contention and Chris Farrell is working his way back to match fitness, improving week by week.
“We’re sure that Sam Arnold and Rory O’Loughlin will continue to improve and both have plenty of promise.”
Ahead of the Six Nations, Ireland’s squad will travel to Portugal to hold a four-day training camp from January 21.
“It’s been great to watch the provincial teams doing so well in recent weeks,” Schmidt said.
“There have been a number of tight calls across almost every position.
“In the front row, Finlay Bealham was very close, as was Marty Moore, who is getting back to the form that saw him win 10 caps in the past and Stephen Archer was at his combative best in Gloucester at the weekend. Rob Herring is very unlucky as his performances for the National team have been first rate.
“Denis Buckley has done well for Connacht and the promising young loose heads Ed Byrne and Eric O’Sullivan have continued to impress.
“Quinn Roux was very close to selection in the second row, which has become highly competitive with youngsters Gav Thornbury, Fineen Wycherley and Kieran Treadwell all impressing of late along with the experienced Billy Holland.
“Even more competitive is the back row, where those selected could well be joined by Dan Leavy once he’s fully fit. Sean Reidy continues to be all action for Ulster and Tommy O’Donnell is starting to get back to top form as well after his recent return from injury.
“With a cohort of young players emerging, it will continue to keep plenty of pressure on the performances of the experienced back row forwards who have been selected.
“Conor Murray is back, but Luke McGrath’s knee injury against Toulouse is likely to rule him out of the Six Nations. Kieran Marmion is not too far away from returning but John Cooney will hopefully be back this weekend for Ulster. It’s a great opportunity for Caolin Blade to get into camp and compete for a spot.
Ross Byrne is unlucky in an incredibly tight call. He is still definitely in our thinking and will continue to press for inclusion through the Six Nations and beyond, while Billy Burns has also fitted in really well for Ulster this season.
“Bundee Aki and a fresh and fully fit Robbie Henshaw squeeze out Rory Scannell, who was great for Munster last Friday, and Stu McCloskey, who continues to give Ulster gain line as well as defensive solidity. At outside centre Tom Farrell has forced his way into contention and Chris Farrell is working his way back to match fitness, improving week by week. We’re sure that Sam Arnold and Rory O’Loughlin will continue to improve and both have plenty of promise.
“Finally Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney were both very good against Toulouse. The Connacht outside backs have been consistently good, Mike Haley is growing into his role with Munster while we look forward to a fit again Darren Sweetnam gaining some game minutes over the coming weeks.”
Forwards: Rory Best (Ulster), Sean Cronin (Leinster), Niall Scannell (Munster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Ulster), Sean O’Brien (Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), Christiaan Stander (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster).
Backs: Will Addison (Ulster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Chris Farrell (Munster), Tom Farrell (Connacht), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Jack Carty (Connacht), Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Caolin Blade (Connacht), John Cooney (Ulster), Conor Murray (Munster).