Crippling injury list certain to affect Ireland’s Six Nations and Heineken Cup hopes

Six Nations campaign over for injured O’Brien: Leinster’s Sean O’Brien is helped from the field after his recent injury.

Six Nations campaign over for injured O’Brien: Leinster’s Sean O’Brien is helped from the field after his recent injury.

Ireland manger Joe Schmidt and Munster coach Rob Penney have been hit with a spate of serious injuries to key players early in the New Year. And with no province assured of a quarter-final place ahead of Round 5 and 6 of the Heineken Cup, performances in January will also be crucial ahead of the start if this year’s Six Nations competition on February 1st.

With Sean O’Brien already sidelined, the last news Ireland manager Joe Schmidt wanted to hear was further injuries to Munster’s Donncha O’Callaghan, Cathal Sheridan and hooker Damien Varley picked up during an exciting Rabo Direct defeat to Ulster at Ravenhill on Friday January 3rd.

But it’s an ill-wind that does not open an opportunity for a number of fringe players in the international and provincial squads. Munster may have been disappointed to lose their ten-match unbeaten record but they did have the positive of unearthing some young promising young talent in the shape of hooker Duncan Casey, centre Ivan Dineen second row forward Dave Foley who all excelled against Ulster.

But Joe Schmidt’s key decision ahead of picking his first Six Nations team against Scotland on Sunday February must be who can possibly fill the big boots of Sean O’Brien. And the good news on that front is both Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell and Ulster’s Chris Henry both through unscathed at Ravenhill.

Despite missing most of this season with injuries of their own, Chris Henry and Tommy O’Donnell look to have timed their form perfectly, returning to fitness just in time for a tough run of games that should leave them battle hardened and ready to go for Scotland on Sunday February 2nd at the Aviva Stadium.

It’s just a matter of which one catches the new Ireland manager’s eye over the coming weeks with Schmidt set to name a much changed squad from the original Autumn Internationals line-up in mid-January. But it’s not just the battle for the No.7 jersey. There are some other players who will no doubt be looking to force their way into the reckoning. Sean Dougall has been one of Munster’s best performers during their previously unbeaten run, while the likes of Jordi Murphy, John Muldoon, Kevin McLaughlin and Rhys Ruddock could also come into contention with a good run of form in the coming weeks.

But similar to the replacement of the retired Ronan O’Gara in the No. 10 jersey it will be a vital call for the new Ireland manager which is why O’Brien’s loss must be minimised as much as possible why it looks like a straight fight between Tipperary man O’Donnell and the highly rated Chris Henry.

Henry came through well the Munster test after making his first appearance since tearing his hamstring against Samoa in November, while O’Donnell was playing the third game of his comeback from a hyper-extension of his knee that has been stalled slightly by a concussion suffered against the Scarlets.

Henry might appear to be the front-runner, given his selection for the first November international and his seniority, but O’Donnell has never been one to sit back and admire his rivals. Now twenty-six and a late developer the man from Cahir has had to bide his time to get to the top and now he wants to keep on rising.

Munster coach Rob Penney has also placed his faith in the former Tipperary county minor footballer, who has repaid his coach handsomely. Last year’s Heineken Cup form also propelled O’Donnell on to the North American tour at the end of last season, where he came off the bench to replace Henry in the narrow win over the United States before starting and scoring a try against Canada a week later.

The Belfast man may be a converted No 8 — like many Irish opensides — but Smith has worked hard on his ground game and is arguably the best operator in the ruck in the country. “Chris is one of those pests at the breakdown. He gets in. He hangs on. He’s hard to get rid of. It will be nice that that’s on somebody else’s side this time,” Schmidt said last November.

Like Leinster, Ireland will lose their primary manufacturer of go-forward ball with O’Brien, and so the Munster man is probably the most like-for-like replacement in the running.

When asked which players he liked to mould his game on, O’Donnell’s reply was telling, as he cited No 8s who can carry as well as get involved in the battle for possession.

“What I did (last season) was not change anything and just add a few more things to become a better player,” he said of his breakthrough year.

Exile Sheridan could be a surprise inclusion in the international squad

Despite playing in the English Championship just a season ago, Irish centre Eamonn Sheridan will also be hoping to catch former coach Joe Schmidt’s eye as the start of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations campaign draws ever closer.

Sheridan has been earning rave reviews in the Premiership with London Irish this year after making the switch from second-tier Rotherham Titans during the summer. But the former age group international endured a rough start to his career after injuries saw his playing time restricted at home province Leinster, who were then coached by Ireland boss Schmidt.

It was Schmidt who backed Sheridan’s move to England initially and now a permanent fixture at the Exiles, he’s hoping he’s not too far from the Ireland manager’s thinking when the final Ireland squad is soon decided for the RBS 6 Nations.

And though the 24-year-old is not thinking too far ahead just yet, he believes an international call-up could come his way if he continues impressing in England.

“He (Schmidt) was quite encouraging when I spoke about going to play in the Championship for a year,” said Sheridan. “He said that it wouldn’t do me any harm to go and get some first-team experience.

“He reckoned I was still quite raw as a rugby player because I was injured for so long. He thought it was a good move for me and, in the end, he was right.

“I think it is something you accept when you come over here – there is going to be a bit more difficulty in being involved in any international squad.

“Every player’s dream is obviously to play for their country but I was a long, long way away from that.

“I’m just concentrating on my rugby and if I play well enough and stand out, then getting capped will take care of itself.”

January/February Fixtures

Heineken Cup – Rounds 5 and 6

Leinster – Pool 1
Round 5 – Castres v Leinster, Stade Pierre Antoine, 1.45pm, Sunday January 12.
Round 6 – Leinster v Ospreys, RDS, 8.00pm, Friday January 17

Connacht – Pool 3
Round 5 – Connacht v Zebre, The Sportsground, 3.40pm, Saturday January 11.
Round 6 – Saracens v Connacht, Allianz Park, 1.35pm, Saturday January 18.

Ulster – Pool 5
Round 5 – Ulster v Montpelier, Ravenhill, 8.00pm, Friday January 11

Round 6 – Leicester Tigers v Ulster, Welford Road, 6.00pm, Saturday October 18.

Munster – Pool 6
Round 5 – Gloucester v Munster, Kingsholm, 6.00pm, Saturday January 11.

Round 6 – Munster v Edinburgh, Thomond Park Stadium, 12.45pm, Sunday January 19.

Ireland’s 2014 Six Nations Fixtures

Sunday February 2nd
Round 1 – Scotland – Aviva Stadium, 3.00pm

Saturday February 8th
Round 2 – Wales – Aviva Stadium, 2.30pm

Saturday February 22nd
Round 3 – England – Twickenham, 4.00pm

Saturday March 8th
Round 4 – Italy – Aviva Stadium, 2.30pm

Saturday March 15th
Round 5 – France – Stade de France, 6.00pm

Other Six Nations Fixtures in February

Round 1 – Saturday – February 1

Wales v Italy 2.30 – Millennium Stadium
France v England 6.00 – Stade de France

Round 2 – Saturday – February 8

Scotland v England 5.00 – Murrayfield

Sunday February 9

France v Italy 4.00 – Stade de France

Round 3 – Friday February 21

Wales v France 8.00 – Millennium Stadium

Saturday February 22

Italy v Scotland 2.30 – Stadio Olimpico