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Stuart McCloskey to step in if Jared Payne loses his fitness race

By Jonathan Bradley

Stuart McCloskey is set to make his Irish debut against England at Twickenham on Saturday (4.50pm kick-off) should his Ulster team-mate Jared Payne fail to recover from injury.

Payne suffered a hamstring strain against France in round two of the Six Nations a fortnight ago, while also having struggled with a groin niggle that slowed his return from a broken foot earlier this season, and is a major doubt to be included in the team head coach Joe Schmidt will name at lunchtime today.

Given his defensive nous and partnership with Robbie Henshaw, the naturalised Kiwi has become an important figure for Ireland since his first cap in November 2014 and his absence would be a blow for the side who have failed to win either of their opening two games of the championship.

With Luke Marshall back at Ulster yesterday despite serving as 24th man against Wales and France, and Keith Earls expected to replace the injured Dave Kearney on the wing, it is thought Schmidt has settled on the hard-running McCloskey as his man for the big occasion.

An out and out inside centre, the Bangor man's inclusion would see Henshaw move into the 13 jersey.

Should Payne fail to come through training at Carton House this morning, Ireland will likely have three debutants in their 23 with Connacht's Ultan Dillane earmarked for a bench role and Josh van der Flier pencilled in to replace Sean O'Brien.

The Leinster openside appears to have beaten off competition from Tommy O'Donnell.

Meanwhile, with Marshall now available to feature in a second consecutive game for Ulster when the province meet Cardiff on Sunday (2.30pm kick-off), Les Kiss is waiting to see whether Rob Herring and Nick Williams will be fit to take part.

Both missed the defeat to Scarlets but took at least some part in training yesterday.

Donnacha Ryan steps in for concussion victim Mike McCarthy in the second-row.

Fit-again Mike Ross is likely to return at tighthead prop, with Nathan White dropping to the bench, while Schmidt looks set to keep Cian Healy in reserve as Jack McGrath continues at loosehead alongside captain Rory Best.

The make-up of the bench will be interesting, with Paddy Jackson pushing hard to replace Ian Madigan and Simon Zebo expected to be named as back-three cover.

England won their opening two matches and top the table, while Ireland lost to France and drew with Wales.

The holders' chances of retaining the title they won in 2014 and 2015 look remote, with just one point from their opening two fixtures.

Possible Ireland team to face England: R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne/S McCloskey, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), M Ross; D Toner, D Ryan; CJ Stander, J Van der Flier, J Heaslip.

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