As the injuries mount for the Irish provinces following a bruising (but successful) European weekend, we investigate the potential crisis facing Joe Schmidt’s options at scrum-half.
First up on Friday evening, Munster went to Kingsholm for a potentially difficult task against Gloucester in Pool two. A pool where all four sides had a chance at being top come round six. 26 points from Joey Carbery guided the Southern province to victory in front of a huge travelling Munster crowd.
On Saturday afternoon, an injury-hit but strong Leinster took on a highly confident Toulouse side on a twelve-match unbeaten run and with four wins out of four in Europe. A top class performance gave Leinster a 29-13 bonus point win to regain top spot in Pool 1.
Later that day, a Jacob Stockdale-inspired Ulster downed a star-studded Racing 92 to close the gap at the top of Pool 4. On the same day Connacht overcame an in-form Sale Sharks to go level with the English side at the top of their pool.
Heading into the huge European weekend, despite Kieran Marmion’s injury, Joe Schmidt still had a healthy bill of scrum halves. However, come Saturday night, he was down two more high quality 9s as injury struck. In the 60th minute in Leinster’s match vs Toulouse, Luke McGrath was carried off the pitch with a suspected leg injury. Leo Cullen described it as “a worrying leg injury”, that he appeared to be “in some pain”. It has since been confirmed by the Leinster medical staff that he will be out for eight weeks.
To make matters worse, John Cooney was then omitted from the Ulster side before the game after failing a late fitness test. It was said to be a back spasm preventing Cooney from playing. However, it is believed that he should be fit if needed for Ireland’s opening Guinness 6 Nations match against England. Although, he is a doubt for the trip to Welford road.
With Conor Murray now back and the obvious choice at scrum-half, there has been much debate about who is the second-best number 9 in Ireland. While Joe Schmidt has more often than not gone to Kieran Marmion to fill the void in Murray’s absence, many have called for Luke McGrath or John Cooney to be brought in when the Munster man is gone. However, when all nines are fit, one can infer that Kieran Marmion is Joe Schmidt’s number two selection.
Now that Schmidt is without McGrath and possibly Marmion and Cooney, here are three others he may select for the Six Nations.
1. Caolin Blade
The most likely to get called up for the Six Nations, Blade is now in his 3rd season in Connacht’s senior squad and has already racked up 82 caps. He has also been in good form filling in for Kieran Marmion, so it is very possible Schmidt may call in Blade for the first two rounds.
2. Dave Shanahan
A dark horse to be called in. Shanahan has been filling in for John Cooney in big European games, such as the clash with Racing, and he has proven himself more than capable. That is what may give him the edge over Blade. He is also a prolific try scorer with six tries in 12 games.
3. Duncan Williams
Extremely unlikely but the type of experienced provincial player Schmidt would turn to. However, having dropped down the Munster pecking order and not performing in big games, Williams lacks the quality required by Joe Schmidt.
Although Dave Shanahan has been in top form for Ulster this season, Caolain Blade’s performances in the interprovincial games should get him into Schmidt’s squad for the Six Nations.
Turning attention to the English game, it is going to be a huge challenge and more difficult than people anticipate. With Luke McGrath definitely out, and Kieran Marmion extremely unlikely to feature, there is a lot more pressure on Conor Murray and that is something Eddie Jones will target.
Also, England are going to want to exact revenge on Ireland after their defeat in Twickenham last year. However, in front of a sold-out Aviva Stadium, Ireland should be able to get the job done.