Kidney gives bright sparks chance to shine
Published 15/11/2012 | 05:00
The last time six Ulster players started for Ireland, they wore black armbands to commemorate the death of one of the province's most enigmatic entertainers, George Best.
Seven years on from a dazzling November series win against Romania, another half-dozen of the northern province's finest players – many of them betraying a youthful vigour – appear primed to storm the Irish starting XV.
They will all be aiming to put their best foot forward.
If our predictions are correct, based on images from this week's training camp and indications from the management, then Ireland will once more seek to sparkle against minnows of the international arena backboned by a smattering of Ulster players, just as they did in the 43-12 runaway success against the Romanians in Lansdowne Road in 2005.
Aside from that occasion, you have to trawl back to a 1997 Five Nations clash against Scotland at Murrayfield to discover the last time there were so many Ulster players lined up for the anthems.
Regrettably, there will be no international caps awarded for Saturday's encounter against Fiji, the great entertainers of the world game.
Intriguingly, despite the game being played in a Munster fortress, most of the attention will alight upon Ulster players who have flooded the team in a number of influential positions, as Declan Kidney aims to plan for a future.
That it is a future that may not include the head coach is irrelevant to the bigger picture – a succession plan needs to be installed regardless of whether the incumbent boss will earn the right to see it reap any rewards.
Last Saturday, Ireland supporters were enthused by the individual performances of many players against South Africa. Sadly, the pervading disappointment emerging in the post-game debates in pubs and clubs was that the sum total of the Irish efforts fell well below the merits of the individual parts.
This week, while individual performances will again be a key focus – particularly with so much emerging talent on show – supporters will want to see a much more cohesive unit, especially in attack.
Five to watch at Thomond Park
1 Luke Marshall
Tragically, the death of Nevin Spence earlier this season thieved the Irish international scene of one of its most prodigious young talents, a player who appeared destined to challenge fiercely for the inside-centre jersey when it is vacated by Gordon D'Arcy.
Whether Kidney continues to focus on the short-term need for results – especially against Argentina – and with it the preposterously short-sighted combination of Jonny Sexton and Ronan O'Gara in midfield, is as yet unclear, as is so much with this Irish management's approach.
It is only a few months since the surreal development that saw Kidney's Ireland – instead of calling up tourist Fergus McFadden to fill an emergency vacuum at 12 last summer – harassing poor Paddy Wallace to forfeit his beach holiday, producing predictably slapstick results.
Were Ireland instead to insist on immediately developing valid options in midfield to develop a horribly static attack – albeit compounded by the absence of ball-carriers – the fast-tracking of another Ulster star could offer one road map to a brighter future.
A former out-half, Marshall's progress at Ulster is ironically blocked by Wallace, who is now bizarrely ignored by the Irish management!
Kidney has dropped strong hints that Marshall's promotion will be accelerated this month.
2 Paddy Jackson
With his remarkable breakthrough in Ulster's extraordinary Heineken Cup campaign last season, the fledgling out-half with the veteran's mentality harvested a rake of experience in one fell swoop.
While his selection for the knockout stages seemed to represent an enormous gamble by then coach Brian McLaughlin, Jackson demonstrated that he was unfazed by the promotion, although he was ably abetted by the peerless protector at scrum-half, Ruan Pienaar.
He was then horribly exposed as Leinster steamrolled the Northerners in the Heineken Cup final, but, despite a day to forget at pivot, those of us who attended the occasion were impressed by his maturity in reflecting on the lessons in the post-match mixed zone.
Has leapfrogged the two Ians – Madigan and Keatley – and, in the support base of Munster's notoriously demanding fans, Jackson will be under pressure to demonstrate that he has the composure and poise required for the international game.
3 Dave Kilcoyne
Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal is anxious that the man they call "Killer" can become a front-row assassin – one hopes that he makes a more lasting impression than the last Munster prop singled out for a bright international future (Tony Buckley).
Munster coach Rob Penney has been enthused by Kilcoyne's displays this season and was moved – on two separate occasions – to seek corroboration from refereeing bodies as to why he was penalised in scrum engagements.
On both occasions, Penney's complaints were upheld. Smal is also a fan. "I'm very excited by him. He is still cutting his teeth, but the last two weeks he has been working really hard," he says.
4 Iain Henderson
He has been on the national radar since starring for Mike Ruddock's U-20s in the Junior World Cup last summer, when Ireland stunned the Springboks amongst others.
He was drafted into Ireland's original training camp earlier this season before he had made his seasonal bow for Mark Anscombe's Ulster.
Henderson signed his first senior professional deal just days ahead of an impressive Heineken Cup debut against Castres last month, when his ball-carrying strength and tackling abilities came to the fore.
That he has already made his international debut, thanks to his bow last weekend, will take some of the pressure off his shoulders should he be named in the starting line-up this lunchtime.
Not that he seems to carry much pressure. "He's one of those that's going to be very special in the future if he's managed right," enthuses Smal.
5 John Muldoon (Connacht)
After Mike McCarthy – at 30, hardly a version of exciting young blood – made such an impression on the disenchanted Irish rugby supporters last weekend, another western warrior should get his latest chance to demonstrate his worth from the off, albeit from an unusual side of the scrum.
Muldoon already has three caps to his name but the most recent of those arrived two years ago – when Ireland's fittest and strongest have been available, Muldoon has been surplus to requirements. However, with so many ball-carrying behemoths missing for Ireland, the Portumna man's abrasive qualities in this department endure as a vital characteristic.