Wolfhounds service not necessary for O'Driscoll as centre kept on ice
This afternoon’s 25-man Wolfhounds squad announcement will not include recently-deposed Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll.
Initially expected to feature, the management are seemingly content O’Driscoll has banked sufficient pitch-time – 178 minutes over three matches – since returning from syndesmosis, which required ankle surgery in November.
O’Driscoll will be kept on ice until the Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff on February 2nd.
Hooker, outhalf and the wing pecking order will be closely assessed by the Irish management after Friday’s Wolfhounds match against the England Saxons in Galway.
The most interesting selection decisions over the coming weeks appears to be wing, with Rob Kearney a certainty to return at fullback, and the reserve hooker slot behind Ulster’s Rory Best. This is due to Luke Fitzgerald’s immediate return to form and the news yesterday that Richardt Strauss is out for 12 weeks, having sustained the same ankle problem as O’Driscoll.
The South African-born hooker, capped on residency grounds in November, may also need surgery.
Munster hookers Damien Varley and the consistently impressive Mike Sherry are expected to share the minutes on Friday night. This will heap more pressure on Seán Cronin to retain his place in the full Ireland squad following several poor throwing displays by the Limerick man.
Unlike O’Driscoll, Fitzgerald will be given an opportunity to improve his fitness, having only played 204 minutes over three matches in January following an eight-month lay-off.
All told, Friday’s match should influence the make-up of Declan Kidney’s bench come the Six Nations.
The other major focus of today’s A squad announcement – the team is named on Thursday – is at outhalf.
Despite being dropped by Ulster, following a succession of disappointing performances, Paddy Jackson will feature for the Wolfhounds. However, Ian Madigan will also be involved and is poised to supplant the 21-year-old in the pecking order behind Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton.
Ian Keatley, James Coughlan, Kevin McLaughlin and Rhys Ruddock have also been called up to train with Ireland this week.
Ireland kicking coach Mark Tainton was asked yesterday if the Wolfhounds game is being used to influence the final selection ahead of Cardiff: “Yes, there could be players involved in the Wolfhounds game that will be involved in Cardiff. We need to look at certain players in training before we announce that squad.
“But it is also an opportunity for young guys down in Connacht. We are looking forward to seeing Paddy Jackson, if his injury is totally alright, because he impressed during the autumn camp. People like Robbie Henshaw as well, who is having a good season.”
Ulster lock-cum-blindside flanker Iain Henderson is another expected to feature prominently on Friday.
Connacht’s teenage fullback Henshaw is hoping to cap one of the most meteoric rises through the ranks by lining out for the Wolfhounds on Friday.
This time last year the 19-year-old was playing for Marist College, Athlone, in the Connacht Senior Schools’ Cup. But an ever-present Connacht campaign has seen Kidney call on his services for the extended Irish squad for the Six Nations.
The Irish coach was at the Sportsground as Henshaw bagged another man-of-the-match award for Connacht in their Heineken Cup win over Zebre, and the young whirlwind hopes to get the chance against the Saxons at the Galway venue. “It is amazing, unbelievable is what I’d call it now. I am just so happy to be called into the squad, to have the chance to play with such experienced players is brilliant. I am delighted with everything.
“My main goal is to try and get on the team for Friday now. That’s my main priority. I think I did well when I had the ball in hand and I was happy with my game overall,” said Henshaw, who recently signed a new two-year deal with Connacht.
His debut season for Connacht could not have gone much better, but he still sees room for improvement, especially if they can squeeze into the Heineken Cup again next year.
“Personally, I have come a long way. I am just so over the moon with the way it has happened. I can’t believe it. It is amazing to be able to make the step from schools to Connacht to the Irish squad level so quickly.
“The Heineken Cup has been great for us, but hopefully we can continue to improve if we get into it again next year. To get three wins from our six games is brilliant, but we’d love to get another crack at it,” he said.