Ireland will have begun their 6 Nations preparations this week, and in the centres Joe Schmidt will face some big selection questions. While his most consistent options (Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne) have played very little due to injury, some of his other options have been in great form this season. To help try to work through the situation we at RBP have broken down what we think Ireland could do over the course of the tournament.
12. Stuart McCloskey 13. Luke Marshall:
This has been the pairing that has led Ulster to all of its success this season. Marshall is solid as a rock defensively, and offers a very physical presence at outside center, but he also has great vision, and his brilliant running lines often create space for others. McCloskey is a physical beast, there can be no denying that, and his ability to cross the gainline and get his hands free is something Ireland really haven’t seen since Rob Henderson. Brian O’Driscoll had a similar knack for the offload, but his threat was different, more to do with agility and acceleration than power. I must say I find it unlikely that Schmidt would use this pairing, especially given the return of both Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne.
12. Robbie Henshaw 13. Kieth Earls:
Earls showed at the 2015 World Cup that he is still one of the Northern Hemisphere’s most dangerous poachers, and he has continued to do so (when healthy) for Munster. However, some defensive naivety was also exposed at the World Cup, particularly by Italy and Argentina. The presence of Henshaw inside him would allow Ireland to have some physicality, along with the electric pace of Earls on the outside. Given that Joe Schmidt really feels he has done something right with Henshaw at inside centre, this is one of Ireland’s better options should they move on from Jared Payne.
12. Luke Fitzgerald 13. Robbie Henshaw:
Its entirely possible that we see the same pairing only with Fitzgerald in the 13 shirt and Henshaw at 12, but on form this is the pairing to go with. Fitzgerald has been brilliant for Leinster in the 12 shirt this season, and there are multiple reasons why Schmidt would opt to play him in the centres. His left boot means that Ireland can kick to touch in either direction from a ruck or set piece, which is a huge bonus. Additionally, his electric step and lightning pace bely his impressive physicality. At 6’1” and 216 pounds (98kg) Fitzgerald is not a small man, and playing him at inside centre would allow Ireland to put Henshaw at outside centre, where he has created so much magic for Connacht.
12. Stuart McCloskey 13. Robbie Henshaw:
What a thunderous combination this would be. With McCloskey at 6’3” and 239 lbs (109kg) and Henshaw at 6’4” 227 lbs (103kg) these two would give Ireland an explosive physical punch that not many sides could rival. The thing that makes these two so exciting as a prospective pairing is not only their size, but it is their intelligence as well. Both have great vision and distribution, and both run great supporting lines, meaning that Ireland could have two players capable of opening up any defence in their centre pairing. We feel at RBP that either these two, or the Henshaw, Fitzgerald, pairing are the most in form options in the centre, but they are not the ones that we think will take the field.
12. Robbie Henshaw 13. Jared Payne:
It Paynes me to say it (see what I did there…no really I’m sorry for doing that) but this is the most likely combination to start for Ireland against Wales. This is the centre pairing that won the 6 Nations a year ago, and despite the fact that it possesses very little attacking spark, it is very reliable. Many Ireland fans would love to see Payne given a shot in the 15 shirt, given his recent form for Ulster, but Joe Schmidt is less open to change than Kim Jong Un, so this is not likely to happen. These two will lock down the opposition in defence, and in attack they will do just enough to keep Ireland going forward. I don’t like it, but it is tried and tested, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.