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Stuart McCloskey may replace Jared Payne

By Ruaidhri O'connor

Stuart McCloskey could be in line to win his first cap for Ireland on Saturday if Ulster team-mate Jared Payne fails to recover from his hamstring injury in time to face England.

The New Zealand-born centre sat out training yesterday having participated on Monday and will undergo a fitness test before tomorrow's session to prove that he's over the Grade One strain he suffered against France.

Joe Schmidt will hope the 30-year-old can come through, given his partnership with Robbie Henshaw and importance to Ireland's defence.

If he doesn't, the coach has a number of options, with fit-again Keith Earls having covered the centre at the World Cup and Luke Marshall in the mix after being the 24th man at both of Ireland's games to date.

However, Schmidt looks set to favour the size and off-loading ability of uncapped McCloskey, whose inclusion would see Henshaw move out to the No.13 jersey at Twickenham.

With the title defence all but over, the head coach last week hinted that he would change things up and introduce some new faces and he spoke glowingly of the centre's size and hard work after training last weekend.

Tralee native Ultan Dillane looks set to win his first cap off the bench in Mike McCarthy's absence, while Josh van der Flier could be a surprise starter if the coach opts for change.

McCloskey's chances of making his bow, however, appear to depend on Payne's fitness.

Forwards coach Simon Easterby said: "Jared has been excellent at No.13 in attack but in defence he has been really dominant. He took an early bump against the French, but he dug in really hard to stay on the pitch.

"We have other players that can fill in in that position. Earlsy has played there and Luke Marshall has played at 13 as well. We are keen to give Jared the opportunity to come through and we can make a decision after that on what combinations will best fit if he doesn't make it."

Ulsterman Marshall has forged a strong provincial partnership with McCloskey this term, moving out to the 13 channel, and he could yet reprise that role with Ireland this weekend.

"I think we've got a few combinations we could run with," added Easterby.

"We're confident that we'll be in a good place whatever the combinations we decide will take the field."

Belfast Telegraph


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