Joe Schmidt has admitted his latest ever Ireland team selection has proved “unsettling and frustrating” after Simon Zebo failed a last-ditch fitness test before Saturday’s match against France.
Fergus McFadden has been drafted on to Ireland’s bench for the Six Nations encounter in Paris, with Zebo unable to shake off knee trouble and Keith Earls still recovering from suspected concussion.
Schmidt took what, for him, has been the unprecedented step of delaying his team announcement until after Ireland’s final training session on home soil before flying out to France.
The wing McFadden was omitted from Ireland’s initial Six Nations squad, but has now been pressed into service despite initially being selected for Leinster’s Pro12 encounter with Zebre on Friday night.
“That’s the latest selection and change we’ve had to make,” said Schmidt. “Normally we would name the match squad before training, and everyone would be fully fit and have absolute clarity on what their role was and where they were training. It’s probably a bit unsettling and frustrating, but we have to get around it.”
Ireland opened their Six Nations campaign with a bruising 16-16 draw with Wales in Dublin on Sunday. Schmidt lamented the realities of the short break between facing Warren Gatland’s Wales and Guy Noves’ France, while also counting hefty injury collateral.
Johnny Sexton and Andrew Trimble have won their own fitness battles to face Les Bleus, with Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney fit again too. Fly-half Sexton has brushed off a heavy blow to his neck, with Trimble recovering from a shoulder issue and O’Brien and Kearney now past hamstring problems.
Schmidt felt Ireland had little option but to delay their selection while sweating on Zebo and Earls, only for both wingers to fail in their fitness bids.
“We were just trying to clarify the fitness of Simon Zebo and Keith Earls, both of whom we have left out of the squad,” said Schmidt. “One of the reasons it took a while was that they got through training but at the same time we just felt they weren’t 100% fit and it was a risk.
“There’s nothing worse than having someone replaced early in the game who wasn’t potentially fully fit. And having someone come off the bench who isn’t fully fit isn’t probably the best thing to do when you’re going to Paris.
“Simon Zebo was just a little bit sore and couldn’t stretch out his knee fully. Keith Earls will probably complete the last step of his HIA [head injury assessment] tomorrow, but we have to name a team today.
“It’s one of those things with a six-day turnaround, particularly when you’re travelling. If we had another day at home we could hedge our bets a little bit, but we have to get on a plane at 3.15 this afternoon, and we’ve got to take the players who are available to play.”
Sexton insisted he is raring to go despite trudging off in the final throes of the Wales match. Schmidt’s men are chasing a second successive victory in France for the first time since 1927; Sexton is adamant that statistic outweighs the fact that Ireland have not lost to France since 2011.
France have spent their last three clashes with Ireland heaping the pressure on Sexton, and the Leinster playmaker expects another physical examination with Jonathan Danty in midfield.
“I’m OK now, I just got a bang on top of the head and it just compressed my neck a little bit,” said Sexton. “But I’m fit to go and really looking forward to it.
“I’ll be fine – I probably felt the way front-rowers feel every day, but as a soft out-half I just didn’t hide it as well. We’ve only had one chance to see France under their new management, but some of the new individuals they’ve thrown in have impressed. They’ve got dangerous guys across the backline.
“I’ve played against Danty a few times when I was in Paris, and he’s pretty similar to Mathieu Bastareaud in stature. He’s got a lot of ball-playing abilities and speed to add to that too though.
“But we’ve prepared really well for it, we’ve tried to give them the respect they deserve. I don’t think you can ever go to Paris confident. They are never beaten over there, it’s a tough place to go. Just because we’ve had a little purple patch against them doesn’t mean anything now.”
R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble, J Payne (both Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), D Kearney; J Sexton (both Leinster), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), N White (Connacht), M McCarthy, D Toner (both Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), S O’Brien, J Heaslip (both Leinster).
Replacements R Strauss (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), T Furlong (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), T O’Donnell (Munster), E Reddan, I Madigan, F McFadden (all Leinster).