Schmidt set to pair Henshaw and Payne together again in Ireland’s midfield

JOE SCHMIDT IS set to pair Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne together again in Ireland’s midfield for the Six Nations clash with Italy on Saturday.

The same centre duo started Ireland’s November Test against South Africa, performing well in victory before a foot injury to Payne meant Schmidt was unable to continue with the project.

Henshaw and Payne started the November Test against South Africa together. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

However, with the Ulsterman fit again and having come through three appearances for Ulster over the course of January, it appears that he will link up with Henshaw in Ireland’s midfield again.

The front row is set to be made up of Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Mike Ross, while Devin Toner and captain Paul O’Connell look like continuing their strong partnership as the starting locks.

Jordi Murphy is set for a start in the back row, while Munster’s Peter O’Mahony will retain his usual position on the blindside flank.

Though there is a sense that Jamie Heaslip will have recovered from a shoulder problem in time to face the Italians, there is also a possibility that the number eight will not be risked for this fixture with an even greater test against France to come a week later.

If that proves the case, Sean O’Brien is understood to be in line to start in the back row, meaning Murphy would move to number eight.

Conor Murray’s return to full fitness after a recent neck injury means he is likely to wear the number nine shirt, while Munster teammate Ian Keatley has been vying with Ian Madigan for the out-half slot.

The Leinster back started in the Wolfhounds defeat to the England Saxons on Friday night, but Schmidt now looks like he may back 27-year-old Keatley for his first-ever Six Nations start.

In the back three, November Test trio Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe are primed to continue as first-choice.

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Schmidt will announce his starting team at midday tomorrow.

Predicted Ireland XV v Italy:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Jared Payne
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Simon Zebo
10. Ian Keatley
9. Conor Murray

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best
3. Mike Ross
4. Devin Toner
5. Paul O’Connell
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Sean O’Brien/Jordi Murphy
8. Jordi Murphy/Jamie Heaslip

This is The42′s composite Six Nations team, featuring six Irishmen6 opposition players to watch out for in this year’s Six Nations