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Schmidt has the team to win the Grand Slam - all he needs is a little more luck of the Irish

By Neil Francis

Wake me up when the team actually runs out onto the park.

Squad announcements are pretty humdrum these days I almost expect to see my own name in the list, such is the size of that part of the organisation.

It is, though, a bit more complicated than that, and Joe Schmidt has to make at least four calls out of his enormous squad which could be vital in doing something special.

Schmidt will have had to recognise the contribution of quite a number of players on the margins, and for once he might have to acknowledge this.

The headmaster says he picks on form, but this is never the case, and he will pick his old favourites or players who fit into the way he wants to play.

I think he has a very good chance to do something this year, and two years chasing England up and down the table is not where we want to be.

Ireland have the best squad in the Championship and it is down to a significant factor - injury - which will determine how well they do.

The first question you ask when you see the squad, which was announced yesterday, is can they win the Grand Slam if all of those are available?

The answer is yes, providing they don't suffer the same injury blight which is currently being experienced by the Welsh, Scottish and English squads.

Player preparation and player injury management is a real skill. Schmidt managed to keep his Leinster team fresh and available. He has done a good job with his Irish team so far. This is something that his English and French rivals can only aspire to as all of their key players are flogged to death.

It is something that has Schmidt fraying at the edges, the fact that a Grand Slam has not been won under him.

He will get it - he has a real chance this year. The IRFU spent €4m in a bid to host the 2023 World Cup. Maybe it would have been better to spend €4m on keeping Schmidt here so we can win it.

The decisions he has to make while seemingly minor are absolutely crucial. The marginal calls are as follows:

1. LOOSEHEAD

I think Jack McGrath has established himself as the starting loosehead. Whatever sort of post-Lions syndrome he was suffering from has cost him dearly, but his all-round game and his scrummaging are superior to Cian Healy's. I think the key factor here though is his discipline. McGrath has, so far, been able to keep his temper in international Test rugby. Coming off his suspension, I suspect Healy will find himself on the bench this time as Schmidt continues his bid for zero penalties.

2. OPENSIDE FLANKER

SeAn O'Brien has moved into the 'ooh aah Paul McGrath' stage of his career, and his time on and off the pitch and his continuous injury management means he will always be missing in the Six Nations. When he is fit, such are his qualities that he will be brought back in. We are told he will miss the first two matches.

If you are of a mind to counter-ruck on the spur of the moment, you could pick up six or seven turnover balls in any given game. Or do you charge your back-row with trying to get in and stealing a few? Dan Leavy has picked up a significant number of steals.

He is as good as, if not better than, Peter O'Mahony in this phase of the game. Ireland's likely back-row are all No.8s, or converted No.8s, and therefore Ireland have the luxury of picking an openside on the bench which will likely be Josh van der Flier, with Jack Conan unlucky to lose out.

3. HALVES

Luke McGrath gets the shadow scrum-half berth. Picking a closer at 10 is a far more difficult proposition. There is no chance Johnny Sexton will get through this campaign without some form of injury, so the closer may have to become a starter too.

Joey Carbery, whose broken arm will not have impinged his ability to stay fit, will get in.

Ian Keatley has had a good season but, when the bullets started flying in the last 10 minutes over in the U Arena, he made a number of mistakes.

Ross Byrne could surprise everybody, but if Carbery is fit then Joe will pick him.

4. BACK THREE

on the basis that Rob Kearney performed well in November, it probably means that Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway will start and the very impressive Keith Earls will be launched from the bench. Once again, all four players occupying the back three positions are full-backs or converted full-backs.

This team can win the Grand Slam, and should win the Six Nations, luck and luck with injuries being the key.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and Simon Zebo's career with Ireland is also setting in the west.

Ireland squad to face France and Italy in Six Nations

Forwards: Rory Best (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Sean Cronin (Leinster), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Rob Herring (Ulster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Dan Leavy (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Leinster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Quinn Roux (Connacht), James Ryan (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), CJ Stander (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster).

Backs: Bundee Aki (Connacht), Joey Carbery (Leinster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster), Chris Farrell (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Ian Keatley (Munster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Rory Scannell (Munster), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster).

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