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Six Nations: Ulstermen sweat over Irish places

By Jonathan Bradley

Depth has been the buzzword surrounding Ireland as they prepare to kick off their Six Nations campaign against Scotland this weekend with head coach Joe Schmidt set to make some interesting selection calls in the days ahead.

The mastermind behind two Championship successes and a first ever win over the All Blacks called 40 players to Carton House last week with at least some of that number knowing their chance of appearing in the Test side over the next seven weeks will be limited.

And while there is little intrigue surrounding many of the names that will line out at Murrayfield on Saturday afternoon, some big stars will still be sweating it out.

Fitness permitting, Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney seem sure to once again feature in the back-three, with the other wing berth seemingly a straight shootout between Ulster captain Andrew Trimble and Munster's Keith Earls.

The Coleraine man has endured a disrupted season, making his first appearance in October thanks to injury and then picking up another problem in the last of Ireland's November Tests. Having made his return against Leinster in the New Year's Eve inter-pro, he managed four consecutive starts before the break but Earls has the edge on form.

Despite missing out on the World Cup, Trimble has often been a Schmidt favourite, however, and since that tournament has been in the 14 jersey on each occasion the Kiwi has selected a first-choice side.

He may just have enough credit in the bank to make it cap number 70 come Saturday.

Assuming that Jonathan Sexton's lack of rugby and niggling calf are not to keep him from occupying the 10 jersey - if he were to be absent in the Scottish capital, it would be Ulster's Paddy Jackson to again deputise and partner Conor Murray at halfback - the wing debate is the only contentious call to be made in the backline.

Ulster ace Jared Payne is the only presumed Irish starter out with injury coming into the tournament with Schmidt's usual outside centre out with the kidney problem sustained against Australia last year.

Garry Ringrose may have only turned 22 last week but he already has three caps to his name and is set to partner Robbie Henshaw in the midfield for his first Six Nations appearance.

There is little debate about the front-row where Ireland's latest centurion Rory Best will again captain the side from hooker.

Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong are firmly established in the prop positions, with their back-ups Cian Healy and Finlay Bealham able to provide impact off the bench.

With Sean Cronin out of the Championship, Schmidt will have a decision to make for the 16 jersey with James Tracy and Niall Scannell vying for the spot.

Devin Toner is sure to start at lock but who will partner him in the engine room is something to watch out for.

Ulster's form has been severely lacking in recent months but through no fault of Iain Henderson. The lock-cum-flanker has been one of the players displaying some consistency at Kingspan but could be edged out of the starting line-up by Munster's Donnacha Ryan.

The 33-year-old wasn't capped during the first two years of Schmidt's tenure but is now firmly back in the fold and has impressed during his province's run to the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

With Ultan Dillane recovering from injury, there are certainly plenty of options for bench impact. It is in the back-row, however, where the toughest calls must be made.

CJ Stander was Ireland's player of the year in 2016 and, having been in titanic form for Munster, has to be selected at blindside flanker. Jamie Heaslip's place at the base of the scrum is another certainty but Josh van der Flier is also pressing for inclusion in the back-row. The Leinster openside won his first cap at Twickenham during last year's Championship and was in the side last time out against Australia.

If the 23-year-old were to start, it would likely mean that one of Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony not even making the match-day squad.

With such options at his disposal, Schmidt will know his side come into this week as favourites but, speaking at the launch event for the Championship, he stressed that his fellow former Clermont coach Vern Cotter has plenty of similar selection headaches.

"I look at their midfield now and I did not know who Huw Jones was because he was playing for the Stormers," he said of their emerging depth. "Duncan Taylor was super for them in the last Six Nations, you have Alex Dunbar, a really good player who was good for them in November, you have Mark Bennett who is a really good player and Matt Scott who is good.

"Who does he pick in his midfield? He is in a much stronger position.

"There might be a bit of a reliance on Finn Russell who had the ball on a string at Leicester and is super for them. Greig Laidlaw is a great tactician and how quick is Ali Price when he comes off the bench and becomes a real strike weapon?

"And who do you pick in the second row? (Richie and Jonny) Grays, (Grant) Gilchrist and Tim Swinson is flying at the moment."

Both men have big decisions to make.

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