Wolfhounds sniffing for Saxons and succession
RUGBY:As with anything that becomes increasingly scarce, A international games have increased in value. The last time Declan Kidney oversaw a Six Nations A campaign was in 1999-2000, when Ireland won four out of five games to top the table, but due to tighter finances and the need for free weekends, full five-match series at this level are long a thing of the past.
So it is that tonight’s game in Galway is the only one of its type this season and will have value. Whether many of those involved will force their way into the full match-day squad for the Six Nations opener against Wales is unlikely, but markers will be laid-down by some, be it for next week, or as the Six Nations progresses, or farther down the track.
It at least provides valuable game time, and as Kidney noted yesterday, Ireland-England games are “always nice and spicy”.
Ireland have picked seven full internationals and the Saxons six. Ten of the visitors have played at this level before, and it’s striking the English in-form players come mostly from in-form clubs, with 10 of a starting line-up captained by Leicester’s Jordan Crane playing for the Premiership’s leading trio and Heineken Cup quarter-final qualifiers, Harlequins, Saracens and Leicester.
Ireland have been competitive in what has been a fluctuating history in this fixture. Each country has five wins apiece in the last 10 clashes, one of the Ireland highlights being the 49-22 win over a more seasoned side to end a three-match losing streak in the 2009 Churchill Cup final.
Scan through that Ireland selection and it features six players who will be amongst the 21 members of the full squad who will remain on at Carton House today – Fergus McFadden, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Donnacha Ryan and Chris Henry. In addition to Henry, the Wolfhounds team which lost at Sandy Park last season also featured Mike McCarthy and Simon Zebo.
At least nine of tonight’s line-up will be named in a 30-man squad on Monday, and this will have to include at least two of the props. Given David Kilcoyne and Michael Bent are starting, this would suggest they remain favoured to back up Healy and Mike Ross.
Bent’s performance will be closely scrutinised, for up to now he has been limited mostly to cameos, but Declan Fitzpatrick’s chances aren’t helped by him being limited to just 102 minutes for Ulster this season.
Last November’s game against non-cap international Fiji also amounted to an audition for a spot on the wing against Argentina a week later, when Craig Gilroy augmented his hat-trick at Thomond Park with a try on his debut, but this game may have come too soon for Luke Fitzgerald, despite looking as fit as a flea and as dynamic as ever in his two comeback efforts for Leinster.
In addition to Zebo, Gilroy, McFadden and Keith Earls all remain in Carton House, with the latter or Gilroy perhaps favoured to fill the right-wing position. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald, especially, could do his hopes of a return during the Six Nations no harm with another confident display.
The other riddle for the Six Nations opener would appear to be the backrow, and whether Peter O’Mahony or Henry start alongside Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien.
Even so, it’s good to see James Coughlan have the honour of captaining the Wolfhounds, all the more so given, curiously, he never presented the Irish club international side. (Ironically, the Ireland- qualified England tighthead Paul Doran-Jones has done so.)
“I’ve just looked at their pack and they’re big men,” admitted Coughlan. “In the backrow is a massive man, George Kruis – I’ve played against him at Saracens. Jordan Crane is a big ball- carrier. So I think they’ll be coming over here to try to dominate us physically. It’s a huge thing that if we can win the collisions we’ll come out on the right side of the result.
Opportunity for everybody
“It’s an opportunity for everybody. It’s not being dismissed as ‘Off ye go lads, play your game and we’ll see ye at the end of the Six Nations’. We’ve been in the meetings and gone through game plans and had a look at the Welsh.
“The carrot is there, so it’s time to go out and perform now. I’m sure it’s the same for the Saxons lads.”
Alongside him is the rapidly emerging Tommy O’Donnell, whose “development physically has been incredible”, according to Coughlan. “He’s extremely quick, he’s a big, strong ball-carrier, and he’s been extremely efficient around the breakdown, which is exactly what you’re looking for out of your seven.”
There are also the two young locals made good, Dave McSharry and the hugely promising 19-year-old fullback Robbie Henshaw. “At his age there is loads of things he can achieve,” said Kidney.
“I have to pick my words carefully because I don’t like putting a jinx on a young fellow. But certainly for a lad just out of school he has gone about his business really well.”
For all the Wolfhounds, and for those two especially, there is sure to be rapturous support from a capacity crowd.