Ireland winger Tommy Bowe will make his long awaited return from injury for Ulster on Friday night against the Newport Gwent-Dragons, as Ireland coach Joe Schmidt weighs up his options ahead of a championship defining two games against Italy and France.
Bowe himself is unlikely to get the call-up at this late stage without the necessary game time under his belt – his last start was in the gut-wrenching defeat to New Zealand back in November – but that doesn’t mean the Schmidt will be short of options on the wing.
Likely to be involved for Leinster is Fergus McFadden, who benched in Twickenham, and he will almost certainly partnered by Luke Fitzgerald, who himself made a return from injury against the Cardiff Blues last week. Both will be in Schmidt’s mind no doubt, as will Munster flyer Simon Zebo, who’s omission from the squad to face England has filled many column inches.
Speaking on Tuesday regarding his options at winger, the Irish coach praised the form of the incumbents Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble, who have performed well, arguably beyond expectations, in the tournament so far. Dave Kearney in particular has impressed the Irish coach: “One of the things about selection is that we believe Dave Kearney has been outstanding so far.”
“A couple of his aerial takes at the weekend were outstanding. Some of his ruck work was outstanding. Defensively, his tackle quality’s been good and when there’s been space – or no space – he’s been very elusive.
The New Zealander added: “Andrew Trimble on the other side continues to be very effective for us as well. He was pretty unlucky, he possibly could have got over [for a try] when the cross-kick came – both wingers have played very, very well.”
This would appear to cast doubt over whether the likes of Fitzgerald and Zebo will be given the opportunity to play their way into the jersey, although the Ireland boss did reiterate that it is important to reward club form.
Ultimately the decision will come down to whether Schmidt believes he can afford to make changes without sacrificing Ireland’s championship hopes. Due to the nature of Six Nations scheduling, should a player not start against Italy but then start against France, they will have played just one game in five weeks before walking out onto the pitch in Paris.
This will be one factor of many in Schmidt’s mind, and if there is only to be one slot up for grabs in the back three, a huge amount rests on the shoulders of McFadden, Fitzgerald, Zebo et al to go out this weekend and catch the Kiwi’s analytical eye.