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Ireland mix it up for last throw of title dice

 

Big chance: Tadhg Beirne is in the frame for Saturday
Big chance: Tadhg Beirne is in the frame for Saturday
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

When Rory Best sat in Murrayfield after his captain's run for the round two clash with Scotland a little over a month ago, he was asked about his side's second-row options.

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It seemed a case of Murphy's Law - Joe Schmidt had seemed blessed with engine room options only to see Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and Devin Toner struck down with injury.

The skipper - a veteran of the 2015 World Cup when injuries piled up at the most inopportune of times - remained philosophical.

While not ideal, he mused, perhaps Ireland would end the Championship with six options for the engine room rather than four.

While James Ryan and Henderson were dynamic against the French, the Ulsterman's latest injury will once again disrupt their partnership.

If, as now seems likely, fit-again Beirne belatedly gets his shot against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday (2.45pm kick-off), he'll be the sixth lock used by Joe Schmidt in five games and Best's claim may well prove to be prescient.

Ireland, in their coach's Six Nations farewell, can still win the Championship by denying Wales their Grand Slam and then getting a helping hand from Scotland.

But the Calcutta Cup hasn't left Twickenham for Edinburgh since 1983 and, given their injury profile, few are expecting Gregor Townsend's men to secure a first away win in London for 36 years.

As such, the mind wanders to the World Cup in Japan where second-row now figures to be the most competitive area of squad selection.

If Ryan isn't already among the best locks in the world then he is on his way. Henderson has impressed when his injuries have allowed and Toner remains a reliable member of the panel.

Both Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane have pressed their case in the absence of others and now Beirne, after being Munster's most impressive performer this year, should finally get his chance not far from where he made his name with Scarlets.

After the four preceding games, he is in the unlikely scenario of needing a big game.

"For a physical man like him, he hasn't played a hell of a lot," said scrum coach Greg Feek earlier this week regarding the idea that the Munsterman's recent omissions had been viewed as curious.

"These decisions aren't made lightly and, yes, his form has been really good. He's been in top form when he's played for Munster, particularly this year.

"He played some cracking games but we have to make sure that we feel like we're ready and we're giving them justice when they do get an opportunity when they play, not just throwing them out there and going, 'Ok, he's played well, let's go'.

"If he was carrying something, you want to make sure that that's all clear, that he gets a good hit under his belt and then he can perform at the level required."

Dillane, who replaced Henderson just before the hour mark against France last week, has not allowed his mind to wander towards Japan, instead appreciating that this Six Nations has brought him back into the fold. Saturday will be his 15th Test appearance after making his debut against England in Twickenham in 2016, but he had to wait 16 months between caps 11 and 12 with a shoulder injury to contend with during that time.

Back in form, and rewarded with a new Connacht contract back in January, he is happy to just be fit and firing once again.

"I wouldn't project myself that far at all," he said when the subject of Japan was broached.

"I'm just hoping about this week, that'd be great. I just have the focus on this season and Connacht. (This Six Nations has) been a good experience for me, it's been a while since I've had so much game time in this set-up, so it's been great but there's still plenty of things to work on.

"I'm not overly content with everything and I'm just hoping I can get involved again and to do some better work.

"I think I was quite fortunate. It's kind of how rugby works, some players get their chances through injury and luckily I was able to do well in the first couple of appearances. I've been fortunate in some ways, but it's been a great experience."

While it's unlikely to end in a title, Dillane wants the side to build on the win against a sub-par Les Bleus.

"Noise, basically," he said when asked what he thought might be different on his first game in the Principality Stadium. "It is going to be really, really loud whether they close the roof or not. The weather is predicted to be fairly bad.

"I mean, there is going to be a lot on the conditions, but we have to improve on last week.

"Obviously we know it was definitely a step in the right direction for us but the French are not the same as the Welsh, they're going to be a completely different outfit. They could punish us more at that time in the game so it means we definitely have a lot of work to do to put in a good performance.

"We're happy with how a lot of it went but it's a different team so that mentality has to be a lot different.

"We have to respect the quality that they're going to bring."

Wales vs Ireland

Guinness Six Nations Championship

Principality Stadium, Saturday, 2.45pm

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