SCOTLAND and Ireland have returned to their RBS Six Nations camps with large training squads ahead of Sunday’s crucial match at Murrayfield, but whereas the Scots are expecting to make minimal changes, Irish coach Declan Kidney is facing a testing overhaul.
Scott Johnson called up 13 extra players to his squad for training this week, and he has one big call to make with Euan Murray not available for Sunday’s third championship match due to his religious beliefs. Jon Welsh, the Glasgow prop, is back in harness now after a six-month lay-off with injury and he has been playing on the tighthead side of the scrum as well as loosehead, which has ensured that he becomes the perfect bench cover if considered sufficiently match fit.
Moray Low and Geoff Cross are ahead of him in the queue for the No 3 jersey with Low expected to start against Ireland and Cross to be joined by Welsh on the bench. Sale prop Alasdair Dickinson also returned to the training squad yesterday, and offers a bench option should Welsh not be 100 per cent yet, while Dougie Hall and John Barclay were back at Murrayfield after injury, alongside locks Tom Ryder and Grant Gilchrist, and Sale back row Richie Vernon.
The backs that re-joined the camp were Glasgow quartet Sean Kennedy, Alex Dunbar, Peter Murchie and Peter Horne, the latter having recovered from a fractured thumb. Horne was in line for a role against England in the opening match, but with Matt Scott having starred in the victory over Italy 11 days ago Horne’s best hope is a place on the bench for Sunday. Tom Heathcote returns to the squad after coming off the bench early in Bath’s big win over London Irish at the weekend and Nikki Walker, the Worcester wing, is also back with the full squad for training.
The picture is quite different for Ireland, however, who similarly called up a welter of extra players yesterday to ensure a full training squad. Like Scotland, they have one win and one defeat to their name in the tournament so far and they will also name their squad tomorrow, with many in the Emerald Isle eager to see how he fills the holes left by six players ruled out by injury or suspension. Chris Henry is the latest to be ruled out with an injury, the replacement openside flanker against England suffering a torn cartilage in Ulster’s win over Zebre on Friday night.
He joins injured second row Mike McCarthy and prop Cian Healy, suspended for a stamp on Dan Cole, in dropping out of contention in the pack, while Johnny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Simon Zebo have all gone down with injuries from that 12-6 defeat in Dublin.
Among the players called up yesterday were Leinster’s 23-year-old fly-half Ian Madigan, who has become a public favourite this season. Paddy Jackson, the Ulster fly-half, is also in the squad, but the betting money is on Ronan O’Gara to take over from Sexton with Jackson favourite to be named on the bench.
The 35-year-old O’Gara, whose last Test start was in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat by Wales, struggled against England and turned in a poor performance for Munster in Saturday’s defeat by the Scarlets, which has had many calling for Jackson or Madigan to start against Scotland.
Kidney, however, is a fan of O’Gara and his experience, and is not yet convinced by Jackson, who hasn’t been goal-kicking either at Ulster with Ruan Pienaar taking on those duties. .
The star linch-pin, Brian O’Driscoll, is also a doubt although the Irish camp have been very quiet on his progress, or lack of progress, from an ankle injury suffered against England. Were this to be the last game of the championship there is every likelihood that the former skipper would play even if not 100 per cent recovered, and with the team already missing key players the odds are that he will start even if he feels 70 per cent fit.
But this is a Lions year and O’Driscoll is hopeful of finishing his playing career in Australia in a winning British and Irish Lions tour. That might suggest that he would be better giving himself another fortnight in which to allow the ankle to heal, but O’Driscoll is not a player likely to put himself before the needs of an injury-ravaged squad.
Fergus McFadden is favourite to play inside him with Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald vying for Zebo’s wing berth. Up front, Dave Kilcoyne is expected to be handed Healy’s No 1 jersey with another Lions veteran, 33-year-old Donncha O’Callaghan, joining Donnacha Ryan in the second row.