The big guns are back: 5 talking points as Schmidt names extended 6 Nations squad

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The bash brothers are back

They have no biological connection but when Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien are both on the field, their bulldozing ball carrying gives Ireland and Leinster a phenomenal one-two punch. Jack McGrath and Rhys Ruddock deputised well for the duo in the autumn but there is no denying the extra quality that Healy and O’Brien bring to Joe Schmidt’s squad.

Leinster were targeting the Dragons game on February 15th to reintroduce the duo but it will be interesting to see whether they are used by Schmidt in the Wolfhounds game against England next Friday night. With Chris Ashton and Slammin’ Sam scheduled to be in Cork, the game could be a real cracker.

Iain Henderson is other dynamic forward that Schmidt was able to call upon and like Healy and O’Brien, the faster Ireland can get him back involved, the better.

Familiar faces return to the back division

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After long absences from the national team, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls were both included in Schmidt’s extended squad too. After some exciting performances at 13 for Leinster in the last two months, a 12/13 partnership of Henshaw/Fitzgerald is piquing the interest of many Irish rugby fans.

Earls has only gotten two cameos off the bench for Munster since returning from a knee injury so he is likely to only feature for the Wolfhounds. But if he gets a start in the Champions Cup dead-rubber against Sale this weekend, it will give the utility back a good window to prove his worth to the national coach ahead of next month’s 6 Nations.

Ross hangs on

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A few obituaries were written for Mike Ross last week after he was omitted from Leinster’s matchday squad to face Castres in favour of Marty Moore and Tadhg Furlong. However, Joe Schmidt has stuck with the veteran prop and Furlong will have to wait a little longer before dislodging the wily tighthead from the national set-up.

The Leinster scrum has improved a great deal since Moore has returned and it will be interesting to see if Schmidt rewards him with a start against Italy, or if he is returned to the spot on the bench he occupied in last season’s championship-winning campaign.

Conan gets his reward

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If Dominic Ryan’s early-season form was enough to warrant an Ireland call-up in November, then it’s no surprise that Jack Conan’s bruising ball carrying earned him a similar reward. In the absence of the aforementioned O’Brien, Conan has really stepped up for Leinster and at 22, has shown a dominating robustness rarely seen from someone so young.

Whether he features for the Wolfhounds or in the 22 for the Italy game is another matter, but the young back row has already enjoyed a memorable season.

There was one for everyone in the audience

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Obviously it was an extended squad, but after a bit of a build-up it ended up feeling like Clive Woodward’s Lions tour with so many people picked.

With that being the case, there wasn’t a whole lot of snubs in Joe Schmidt’s squad. You could argue that Luke McGrath’s recent form warranted his inclusion ahead of Isaac Boss but having just broken into the Leinster 22, McGrath is still learning what provincial rugby is like at the top level. That being said, it was still surprising that the young scrum-half wasn’t considered for Wolfhounds duty at least.

We’ll know a lot more about what Schmidt is thinking once the Wolfhounds are released next week. Having been out for so long, it would be very surprising if Schmidt risked O’Brien or Earls during the 6 Nations but that is what is exciting about the next few weekends outside of the championship games – it will be interesting to see how those two go regardless of what team they tog out for.

Are you happy with the squad? Who would you have liked to see included?

Originally published at 15.48

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