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Schmidt's Irish plans cast shadow over inter-pro action

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The presence of Joe Schmidt hangs over the Christmas derbies once again this year with the Ireland coach's pragmatic approach to the national team's success dampening the spirits around the big inter-provincial fixtures designed to light up the festive season.

Everyone in Irish rugby wants a successful Six Nations, but it seems a shame that it must come at the price of what should be gilt-edged fixtures that grab the full attention of the sport's fans.

With people home for the season and looking for events to attend, the clashes are an easy sell in terms of tickets, but when it comes to star quality the names in the jerseys can't always be guaranteed.

At this stage, we don't know which internationals will be allowed to play when Ulster host Connacht on Friday night and Munster welcome Leinster on Boxing Day, before Leinster face Ulster and Connacht take on Munster on New Year's Eve.

What we do know is that most of the front-line internationals will be allowed to take time off during the two weeks ahead and their minutes will be managed.

Stuart Lancaster said of Leinster's large contingent of internationals: "We can't play them in both games. It is a question of do you play Jack McGrath the first day or Cian Healy? Do you play Sean Cronin or James Tracy?

"It is where you need the depth in your squad and that's what Leinster have done really well.

"They've not only got a deep squad, but also the opportunity through the selection process and injuries to give younger players opportunities to step in the hole.

"Say with Rory O'Loughlin and Garry Ringrose, I would be confident with Rory to play in a game of this type because he's had the experience already."

Since he is an ex-international coach and is relatively new on the scene, it's perhaps no surprise to hear that the Englishman isn't too perturbed by the notion that the game, which has already attracted a record Thomond Park crowd, is devalued.

"I don't think this game will be diluted," he said. "The trick on selection is to make sure that we are competitive in both games."

The other issue affecting preparations is Schmidt's decision to hold a one-day pre-Six Nations camp two days ago.

Les Kiss stopped short of criticising the timing, but the Ulster coach is already dealing with a five-day turnaround after a bruising defeat to Clermont and doesn't sound overly happy.

"We only get one training session as there's a national camp on," he said. "Connacht will be on a high and we've got to make sure we make the time that we do have matter.

"(The camp) has been in the diary for a long time. We've had to plan around it. We're sorting through the bodies and we'll see how we stack up."

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