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Ireland stars hoping to wow Joe Schmidt

By Niall Crozier

New Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is likely to be the most interested spectator at Thomond Park on Saturday evening when Munster host Leinster in the PRO12.

It's the final round of matches in the series before the focus switches to the Heineken Cup which will occupy centre-stage for the following two weekends.

That being the case, both Munster and Leinster will name starters and replacements who are likely to figure a week later against Edinburgh and Ospreys. And that means both sides' international players who are fit will be on show.

Not only is Saturday's PRO12 inter-pro the perfect warm-up for both provinces prior to stepping onto the European stage; it also gives Schmidt the chance to watch the majority of those who are likely to feature in his first Test match as Ireland coach – against Samoa at the Aviva Stadium on November 9.

Munster's performance against NG Dragons on Saturday provided further examples that their coach Rob Penney's work is beginning to bear fruit.

Last term – his first in charge – one sensed that the New Zealander was thwarted in his ambitious attempt to introduce a more adventurous style, with one or two of Munster's more experienced players reluctant converts to the new style.

That came as no real surprise; even minor change takes time. And with the change Penney sought being radical in that it challenged the style on which generations of Munster teams had built their reputations, such major transformation was going to take a little longer.

However, watching them outplay the Dragons on Saturday night, what stood out was their evident willingness – and desire – to play a more expansive brand of football than the traditional stick it in the jersey and keep it in or close to the pack, leaving a goal-kicking out-half to add points from penalties.

True, there was no scoring spree last Saturday night, Munster's 23-9 victory having come about as a result of tries by blindside, captain and man of the match Peter O'Mahony and loose-head James Cronin, both converted by JJ Hanrahan who also added a hat-trick of penalties.

As a result of that win, they are up to third place, two points shy of joint-leaders Glasgow and Ospreys and one ahead of Leinster.

Schmidt will be delighted to see Paul O'Connell in action against Leinster, the big man having come on for the final half-hour of Munster's clash with the Dragons. That appearance off the bench was his first since fracturing his right forearm in the Lions' opening Test on June 22.

Meanwhile, Keith Earls is a player who, having caught the eye at the weekend, will attempt to outshine his Leinster rival opposite number. If, as was the case against Dragons, he wears 13, that would put him in direct opposition to Brian O'Driscoll. Mission impossible, that – Schmidt has not coaxed Irish rugby's best-ever player to postpone his retirement for a year only then to omit him.

Earls has a problem and it is that no-one has quite worked out where to use him. Is he most effective on the wing or does he cause most damage in the centre? Or is he a full-back?

With tomorrow being his 26th birthday, the term 'utility back' is one he needs to shed if he is to add significantly to his tally of 31 Ireland starts. The danger for a man capable of providing cover in three positions is that he is likely to find himself on the bench more often than on the pitch when the first whistle sounds.

There is no shortage of wingers – Ulster alone can provide three in Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble, so perhaps that is one option Earls ought now to consider striking from his list?

Having coached Leinster prior to taking over from Declan Kidney, Schmidt knows that province's players inside-out. In the circumstances, it would be totally understandable if, in a 50-50 call, he were to opt for those he knows best.

But the affable Kiwi strikes one as being as fair as he is canny, for which reason Ulster, Munster and Connacht players can expect an unbiased verdict when he sits down to deliberate ahead of next month's Guinness Series.

Belfast Telegraph

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