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Schmidt's strongest hand likely despite injury worries

By Jonathan Bradley

Ireland remain hopeful that they will have a full squad to choose from when they meet Italy at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday despite serious doubts over two of Joe Schmidt's first-choice backs.

Jared Payne's bruised foot is a real cause for concern while full-back Rob Kearney took part in light training yesterday following a strained glute.

"Most of the guys got out and trained," said scrum coach Greg Feek yesterday from Ireland's Guildford base.

"We'll see how they come up. If guys have had niggles, they get through this afternoon and then get assessed in the morning.

"Rob ran around and a few other guys are looking good too.

"So (it's a case of) fingers crossed for the rest of the week that we can go into Italy with a full squad to choose from."

If Kearney doesn't make it, Ireland can be confident in Simon Zebo's ability to fill the number 15 jersey.

The Munster speedster was in fine form against Romania last weekend, playing with an attacking verve that may even have had him pushing for a start regardless.

Payne, however, will surely be sweating over his involvement given Schmidt's well-documented desire to see his players on the paddock in the early stages of the week.

"He didn't train," said Feek of the Ulster outside centre.

"He's got a bit of a bruise, so he didn't train.

"We'll see how he goes over the rest of the week and then maybe," he added.

Payne featured in all five of Ireland's 2015 Six Nations contests, as well as being one of only three men to start both World Cup games to date, and his absence would prolong the wait for Schmidt's first-choice midfield pairing to take the field together at the tournament with Robbie Henshaw yet to play thanks to a hamstring strain.

If the Ulster star does miss out, Schmidt could move Keith Earls inside from the wing or give one of Ulsterman Darren Cave and Luke Fitzgerald a start.

Whatever the outcome, Feek has said that after a raft of changes for the Romania contest, it will be a full-strength starting line-up against their Six Nations rivals.

"I think it's the best team to beat Italy has to take the field," he said.

"We had a pretty good hit out against Canada, but now we have to win to get out of the pool and make the quarter-finals, that's the goal.

"We've got to move on now, that's not saying the team this week will play next week.

"At this stage, the team that will be playing will be the best to beat Italy.

"We just need the team to be gelling really well and doing everything we do well to do that.

"If we're lucky enough to beat Italy and beat them well, then we need to build from there because France bring a different element to Italy in terms of size and power but, similar things around the breakdown, defence and set-piece."

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