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Rugby World Cup: Irish stars have left boss Joe Schmidt with tough calls to make


Headache: Joe Schmidt has a number of decisions to make for the starting line-up against Italy

Headache: Joe Schmidt has a number of decisions to make for the starting line-up against Italy

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Headache: Joe Schmidt has a number of decisions to make for the starting line-up against Italy

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's World Cup bonus-point win over Romania, Joe Schmidt's attention had already turned to facing Italy at the Olympic Stadium this weekend with the Ireland head coach describing the next seven days as "the pivotal week".

Jacques Brunel's side have regressed at a rate of knots since beating a Declan Kidney-led Ireland back in 2013 and last Saturday only scraped past the same Canadian side that shipped 50 points to the Irish a week prior but the meeting between the Six Nations rivals is still expected to see an increase in intensity.

With Schmidt's side having collected a full complement of 10 points from their two Pool D games, utilising essentially two different teams - only Robbie Henshaw, victim of a hamstring strain, is yet to see game time - the Kiwi's squad have given their coaching team a number of selection issues to ponder before the announcement of the match-day 23 on Friday.

Tommy Bowe v Dave Kearney

The battle for the No.14 jersey is perhaps the closest of calls facing Schmidt. Out of the squad for the opener against Canada, Ulster's two-time Lion bounced back from the unusual experience with two tries against Romania and a solid all-round showing.

Bowe was his usual self in the air, always important for Schmidt, while his defence, uncharacteristically off in the warm-up Test with England, was back to its usual standard. It remains to be seen, however, if he has done enough to see off the challenge of Dave Kearney.

The Leinsterman has been in the form of his life of late, training well throughout the summer before impressing in the warm-ups and scoring a try against Canada.

With Keith Earls excelling over the last two games, Bowe and Kearney are battling for one place and, while the latter will count himself unfortunate, the Monaghan man may just edge it.

Verdict: Tommy Bowe

Rob Kearney v Simon Zebo

Another man who has been selected for the past two Lions tours, Rob Kearney faces an anxious wait this week after having a scan on a gluteal strain yesterday.

Team manager Mick Kearney revealed that it could be tomorrow before the extent of the injury is known and that doubt could see Simon Zebo retained in the full-back position.

Sadly, Zebo left camp yesterday after the death of his grandfather but he is expected to return to England today.

The Cork native has never seemed to fit the archetypal idea of a Schmidt back-three option but the X-factor he brings to proceedings were there for all to see against the Romanians.

While his disallowed try would have been something special, coming after an excellent break from Earls and fine footwork from himself, his involvement in three scores caught the eye. If there is any doubt over Kearney, Zebo would be a fine replacement.

Verdict: Simon Zebo

Robbie Henshaw v Luke Fitzgerald

The only player in Ireland's 31-man squad yet to start his personal World Cup campaign, Henshaw had been struggling with a hamstring complaint since the team arrived at the tournament.

According to the camp, the Connacht youngster could have played last weekend but having missed training in the early stages of the week, it was thought best to hold him out of action.

While understanding the logic of the call, Henshaw must be champing at the bit to make his World Cup bow but the men who have filled the No.12 jersey, Luke Fitzgerald and Darren Cave, have done well in his absence.

Come Sunday it will be over four weeks since Henshaw's last action and Schmidt will know that he needs to get the Athlone man into the fray sooner rather than later or risk the inevitable rustiness when the games take a considerable leap in intensity.

Verdict: Robbie Henshaw

Cian Healy v Jack McGrath

Cian Healy made his long awaited return to action with 20 minutes from the bench against Canada before backing that up with a start against Romania.

Given the lengthy nature of his lay-off - Healy had not played since April - the 27-year-old limited any lingering effects of his spell on the sidelines better than could have been expected but Jack McGrath has performed admirably in his absence.

Healy's understudy at both provincial and international level lacks his dynamism - most props do - but he has hardly let Schmidt down.

Lesser players would not have bounced back from giving away the infamous penalty that preceded New Zealand's last-gasp comeback in November 2013 and a return to the bench would be harsh on the 22-times capped prop.

Healy, however, is a unique talent - how many front-rowers could have executed that measured spiral kick into Romania's 22? - and when fit is one of Ireland's game-changers.

Verdict: Cian Healy

Iain Henderson v Devin Toner

Iain Henderson's performances over the last two seasons have seen the Ulster Academy graduate go from an impact sub at Test level to a man seemingly intent on making this World Cup his own.

His barnstorming showing during the warm-up Tests, including a first international try against Wales, saw him get the start along with the front-line team against Canada when he again got over the whitewash.

Given a breather on Sunday, Devin Toner returned to the first XV. The Leinster lock can be a key figure in the set-piece, both in Ireland's lineout and their maul defence, and he produced a solid effort when under immense pressure against Romania.

Likely to be out of the 23 if not included from the start, he did little wrong, either at Wembley or in his recent international career, but Henderson has put together a string of performances that simply cannot be ignored.

Verdict: Iain Henderson

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