Payne and Henshaw set to get game time with provinces
Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are likely to be released to Connacht and Ulster this weekend in order to get game-time in their Ireland positions ahead of the Six Nations opener against Wales on Sunday week.
Joe Schmidt has confirmed that between six to eight players will be allowed to go back to their provinces in order to get game-time, indicating that he will be asking his fellow head coaches to play his players in his preferred positions.
Henshaw only made his return from a hand injury last weekend, while Payne has played twice for Ulster since injuring his foot during the World Cup.
There has been some debate over whether Payne's recent runs at full-back could be a portent of a shift in international position, while Henshaw has also worn the No 15 jersey at Connacht.
With the emergence of Stuart McCloskey and the return to form of Luke Marshall, Schmidt has options in the centre, but it would be no surprise to see Henshaw play at inside centre for Connacht against Scarlets and Payne wear the No 15 shirt for Ulster against Treviso on Saturday.
"There are a lot of questions in our heads at the moment and we're not sure," Schmidt said.
"Our combinations are being mixed up at the moment and they're a little bit complicated by some guys needing game-time.
"You'll see maybe six to eight go back and play this weekend, just because they are either short on game-time or short on game-time in a particular position. That's just us trying to get the best preparation."
As for making changes to his preferred centre partnership, Schmidt seems unlikely to tinker with the formula he has had in place since November 2014.
"They are accomplished," he said of Henshaw and Payne.
"Jared has only had two games so he's filled in pretty well and they've been solid games and he's moved into the midfield in both of them towards the end of the games so he hasn't really played a lot of anywhere. Robbie's still played more in the centre than he has at full-back so they're pretty comfortable in either position.
"So for us it is certain that we have a few midfield options there so there is the opportunity to drop them back there and at the same time they're probably both fairly short of game-time.
"One or both of them may even play this weekend."