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Ulster eight get Six Nations Ireland's call from Schmidt

By Jonathan Bradley

Surprises were few and far between as Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt named his 40-man panel for the first two rounds of the Six Nations Championship yesterday.

Eight Ulstermen made the cut, and with such a sizable panel selected, there can be few grumbles over notable omissions with any big name absentees due to injury.

Four key figures from Kingspan Stadium were always likely to be involved when things kick-off with the visit to Scotland on February 4, with skipper Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Andrew Trimble having been, fitness-permitting, ever presents in the Kiwi's recent squads.

In addition, centres Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall, and wingers Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy, have been summoned to the team's Carton House base.

Perhaps the latter pair are two of the more relieved men in the panel, with injury having meant disrupted seasons for both.

Gilroy has just 20 minutes of senior rugby, from a substitute appearance against Bordeaux-Begles last weekend, under his belt since picking up a knock against Cardiff Blues during early December.

Two-time British and Irish Lion Bowe is back in a national squad for the first time since the World Cup having returned from the serious knee injury he shipped at the tournament.

The Monaghan man has made 12 appearances this season, scoring both his tries during the visit to Clermont, as he works his way back to sharpness.

Prospects for his inclusion looked bleak, however, when he was not named in the Ulster selection for the must-win European clash with Exeter two weeks ago.

In Bowe and Gilroy, Schmidt has gone for tried and tested instead of the likes of Leinster pair Adam Byrne or Rory O'Loughlin.

Battling for a place among a packed back-row, Sean Reidy is the only one of Les Kiss's fit charges to have been capped since the World Cup who is not included in the extended squad. A kidney problem has stopped Jared Payne from taking his now usual spot in Ireland's midfield, while hooker Rob Herring's own injury problem has prevented him from staking a claim in the absence of Rory Best's usual understudy Sean Cronin.

Despite the calf problem sustained by Johnny Sexton in Leinster's last outing, he and Jackson are the only out-halves.

There are none from Ulster among the three uncapped players, with Munster brothers Rory and Niall Scannell, and their provincial team-mate Andrew Conway, all hoping to make their Test bows over the next two months.

"It has been good to watch the players over the past two months and great to see many of them doing so well," said Schmidt.

"As always there were some difficult decisions but we feel that the group is a good mix with a number of key players having good experience and a number of newer players having gained valuable confidence during the summer tour to South Africa and the recent autumn series."

Those recent Tests - which included a maiden victory on South African soil and a first ever win over the mighty All Blacks - have generated a feelgood factor in Irish rugby that seems wholly detached to just a year ago.

Coupled with Leinster and Munster's return not just to the European knock-outs but to hosting quarter-finals, it is easy to forget the doom and gloom felt in these parts only 12 months prior.

The World Cup proved something of a chastening experience for Ireland, the elation of the demolition job carried out on the French offset by yet another quarter-final failure, this time being beaten comprehensively at the hands of Argentina.

Ireland had won the crown in the previous two seasons coming into last year's Six Nations - their first back-to-back successes since the late 1940s - but with that heavy defeat at the hands of the Pumas still fresh, the retirement of captain Paul O'Connell and the failure of the provinces to make it out of their Champions Cup pools , all meant a championship beginning under a cloud.

That Ireland managed a draw at home to Wales , even after squandering a commanding position, was a result that many would have taken prior to kick-off.

Losses to England and France were followed by wins over Scotland and Italy, as Ireland achieved the mid-table finish that Schmidt said would be seen as a success.

His captain Best has since spoke of how that tough championship paved the way for the big results that followed in the latter half of 2016. "If you look at Ireland and the group we have at the minute, it came about from a very, very tough start to the season in 2016," he said.

"Some of the mistakes boys made early on, they were silly errors but when you're not used to that level, it's just a mistake.

"You look at those players then to now, there's no comparison because they learned."

Ireland squad for RBS Six Nations:

Forwards: F Bealham (Connacht), R Best (Ulster), J Conan (Leinster), U Dillane (Connacht), T Furlong (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), B Holland (Munster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), D Leavy (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), S O'Brien (Leinster), T O'Donnell (Munster), P O'Mahony (Munster), D Ryan (Munster), J Ryan (Munster), N Scannell (Munster), CJ Stander (Munster), D Toner (Leinster), J Tracy (Leinster), J van der Flier (Leinster).

Backs: T Bowe (Ulster), A Conway (Munster), K Earls (Munster), C Gilroy (Ulster), R Henshaw (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), R Kearney (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), L Marshall (Ulster), S McCloskey (Ulster), L McGrath (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), T O'Halloran (Connacht), G Ringrose (Leinster), R Scannell (Munster), J Sexton (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster), S Zebo (Munster).

• The Ulster 'A' side have been drawn against Munster 'A' in the quarter-finals of the British and Irish Cup. Ulster will travel south on the weekend of March 10 having earned their place in the last eight with last Saturday's losing bonus point in Jersey.

Quarter-final draw: Munster A v Ulster A, London Irish v Yorkshire Carnegie, Jersey Reds v Cornish Pirates, Ealing Trailfinders v Scarlets Premiership Select.

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