Payne return sparks Schmidt decision time
JARED Payne’s return to full fitness after hamstring trouble will hand Ireland boss Joe Schmidt a selection conundrum for Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations clash with Italy.
Reigning champions Ireland are winless after three matches and chasing two closing victories to avoid slipping from title-holders to also-rans.
Payne missed Ireland’s 21-10 England defeat but could return for Saturday’s Dublin clash with the Azzurri if head coach Schmidt fields the 30-year-old alongside regular centre partner Robbie Henshaw.
Ulster battering ram centre Stuart McCloskey impressed alongside Henshaw in a new-look midfield at Twickenham, however, leaving Schmidt weighing the balance between victory at all costs and broadening his options.
“We’ll see what happens, obviously Jared gives us another option in the midfield and he’s a quality player,” said Ireland wing Andrew Trimble, assessing the merits of both fit-again Payne and McCloskey.
“I have played with Jared for a few years now at Ulster.
“Obviously you have got two contrasting styles between Jared and Stu, so it’s just what sort of rugby Joe wants to play.
“But there are plenty of options there anyway.”
Flanker Tommy O’Donnell suffered a stinger injury to his shoulder in Munster’s 26-5 PRO12 win over the Dragons on Saturday.
Ireland were hopeful the 28-year-old would be back in full training today, but added the uncapped Munster back-rower Jack O’Donoghue to the training squad as cover.
Test rookie McCloskey held his own on the unforgiving Twickenham stage despite Ireland’s second loss of the tournament, to add to their 16-16 draw with Wales.
The two-time champions are already out of the title race, leaving boss Schmidt free to experiment with new combinations and plan for the future, should he so wish.
The ultra-competitive Kiwi will not countenance Ireland finishing a lacklustre tournament in anything other than style however, leaving any changes at a likely minimum.
Schmidt has himself branded his first-choice centre pairing of Henshaw and Payne a “manufactured midfield” in the past, with Connacht’s Leinster-bound midfielder Henshaw a more natural 13 but operating primarily at 12 to date.
McCloskey’s physicality allowed Henshaw to slot into the outside centre berth for the Twickenham clash, with the pair almost conjuring an impressive breakaway try.
Now Ulster wing Trimble has backed 23-year-old provincial team-mate McCloskey to continue acclimatising to Test match level if handed another opportunity this weekend.
“In typical Stuart style, in a big step up like that at Twickenham against England, he stepped up very well, and took it in his stride,” said Trimble.
“He is very confident and knows what he’s capable of producing on the pitch.
“I think there’s more to come from him as well.”