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Chris Farrell's injury setback means Ireland have a new centre of attention for Scotland background

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

You wouldn't want to be a superstitious centre in the Ireland ranks as the growing curse of the No.13 shirt struck again yesterday.

Chris Farrell, riding the crest of a wave, was struck down during training at Lansdowne Road. Joe Schmidt was upbeat on the Munster centre when he met the press after the session had concluded, but Farrell's scan results returned a negative verdict.

Farrell's focus will now turn to getting fit in time for his province's Champions Cup meeting with Toulon on April 1, while his coach must turn to his third No.13 in four games.

Garry Ringrose's return to fitness is timely, and the Leinster midfielder looked sharp during yesterday's run-out, but he has found the going tough since returning from serious shoulder surgery and was struck down with an ankle issue.

Although many had expected him to come straight into the Irish side once he proved his fitness, Farrell's performances against Argentina and Wales meant that this campaign might have passed Ringrose by.

Now, he is likely to be front and centre for the final two games of what could yet prove a historic campaign.

Schmidt is a Ringrose fan, and hailed his growth over the past 18 months, but he'll have watched his defensive struggles in the Guinness PRO14 and Champions Cup with concern.

He played well against a woeful Southern Kings side last Friday on his return to action, and the dilemma for the Ireland coach is whether to release him for Leinster's crucial PRO14 trip to Scarlets this weekend.

The game-time might be beneficial for a player who needs match-practice, but the risk of losing another centre would leave the national coach chronically short in the centre with Robbie Henshaw, Farrell and Jared Payne absent.

"It's likely that he may still play with Leinster," Schmidt said before the news of Farrell's injury broke.

"I'll be talking with Leo (Cullen) later today. He may well play with Leinster just to get another game under his belt.

"It's great to have him back in there. I thought he was really sharp in training today and he was good against the Kings, so he's hit the ground running."

The centre issue comes as Schmidt looks for defensive improvements after his team conceded six tries in two games against Italy and Wales.

The No.13 is the key man in any defensive unit, the decision-maker whose ability to read the opposition is crucial.

Ringrose has never played with Bundee Aki, who is prone to the odd misread but makes some brilliant tackles, while Jacob Stockdale is still learning the ropes on the wing and has come in for some criticism from former internationals like Shane Horgan and Luke Fitzgerald.

An experienced outside centre would help Stockdale through the difficult moments, but Ringrose will be focusing on his own job as he plays his way back into form and fitness.

Ireland have been caught on the edge a number of times this season, an issue that goes back to the World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina and also occurred in Murrayfield last season when Scotland caused them all sorts of issues in the wide channels.

Given the way they played against England last weekend, they will be targeting something similar on Saturday week and Schmidt will hope that Ringrose has learnt from the experience.

"Scotland did it to us last year a couple of times, particularly with Stuart Hogg hitting into that wide channel with his acceleration and power, so we have to be ready for that," he said. "At that stage Garry Ringrose was quite young in his Test career and he has 11 Tests now.

"So he was still learning, and even in that second-half they didn't get the same opportunities, so we've got to make sure that we start like we did in the second-half and not in the first.

"Because they had us under a lot of pressure in that first quarter and got those early tries."

The comfort for Irish fans will come from the team's capacity to absorb the loss of top players and still perform.

They demonstrated that last week when Henshaw, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong were ruled out of the Wales game and a trio of relative newcomers stepped in and stepped up seamlessly.

As Schmidt pointed out, Ringrose has the experience under his belt to thrive.

He is one of the most exciting runners this country has produced and has demonstrated the capacity to break a game wide open in glorious style when afforded an inch of space.

Fully fit and firing, he's arguably Ireland's first-choice No.13, and there is potential for him to strike up a formidable partnership with Aki in the coming seasons.

Suddenly there is an urgency to building that relationship and next week at Carton House the duo will be living in one anothers' pockets as they try and build rapport.

Ireland have shown that it can be done in recent weeks and, while he is delving into his depth chart with every passing injury, the coach has faith in what Ringrose can deliver.

Belfast Telegraph

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