Hurley eyes switch from red to green
EVEN with Luke Fitzgerald and Geordan Murphy battling injury woe this season, Ireland coach Declan Kidney has a formidable array of back-three options for the Six Nations.
Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls are likely to fill the 15, 14 and 11 jerseys respectively, but there is a clutch of players ready to step in for these three if required.
After a low-key 2008/09 by his standards, Shane Horgan looks revitalised at Leinster while Andrew Trimble has rediscovered his mojo up north under the guidance of Brian McLaughlin and Neil Doak. Across in Connacht, Gavin Duffy is injured at present but offers consistency and versatility when he returns while Ian Dowling's go-forward style translates easily to the international stage.
Those names would have all merited mention in a similar debate this time last year, but top of this list of in-form back-three back-up boys is a player who 12 months ago was questioning his future in professional rugby.
Denis Hurley has been a revelation on the left wing for Munster this season, playing so well that he is keeping double Heineken Cup-winning winger Dowling out of the side. His size (six foot three), pace and direct style of running have made him a potent attacking weapon for coach Tony McGahan and those qualities are complemented by Hurley's security in defence.
A specialist full-back who dabbled at 10 and 13 in his younger years, Hurley first came to wider attention when then-Munster coach Declan Kidney caused a major surprise by installing him at 15 ahead of Shaun Payne for the knockout stages of the 2007/08 Heineken Cup.
Despite a few rocky high-ball moments in the final against Toulouse, Hurley acquitted himself very well over three high-intensity matches and suddenly found himself with a Heineken Cup-winner's medal in his back pocket at the age of 23.
However, the question marks over his fielding skills would not go away and when McGahan came in to replace Kidney at the start of last season, Hurley became surplus to requirements as Keith Earls and Paul Warwick were rotated in the full-back slot.
It was a difficult period for Hurley who, a few months after the highs of Cardiff, found himself back playing for Cork Constitution in the backwaters of the AIB League.
"It was a tough time alright," he acknowledges. "I was at a point where I was considering my career as a rugby player. When you get catapulted almost into the stratosphere like that, you're looking at how things can happen all of a sudden. But then the thoughts I might have had last year, last season, they weren't coming to fruition. And that was hard.
"My aul' fellah was always a coach with me at under-age level and he knows a lot and would always have been involved in the game. We would have chatted quite often about it and he's the best man to go to. We had one or two chats at Christmas time last year. It was just, 'Whatever happens, happens, but at the end of the day you can only do what you do. It's not about other people. It's about doing it for yourself,' and it was good.
"But the thing about it all is that I love playing rugby and the opportunity to play it week in, week out as a profession. I had to react and rebound. But I think it's made me stronger as a player. My form is probably better now than it was two years ago."
McGahan's decision to move Hurley to left-wing has been a major contributory factor in the confidence-restoration process with the line he took off Paul Warwick's pass for the game-clinching try in Perpignan the stand-out moment so far.
"I maybe got to a point with it last year where I was just so frustrated with it, with how my expectations about how the year might have gone and how it'd actually occurred. Playing on the wing gave me a fresh start and a change of scenery," he admits.
Hurley is on the wing for this afternoon's Heineken Cup clash in Treviso (1.35) in a selection that features Jean De Villiers and Keith Earls in midfield with David Wallace at No 8 and Niall Ronan on the open-side flank.
It is a powerful team and, though the disrupted nature of the holiday period meant that this side has not played together since the destruction of Perpignan four weeks ago, once Munster work out the rustiness, they have the capacity to overwhelm the Italians today.
Treviso have performed above themselves in this campaign, stunning Perpignan at home and giving Munster and Northampton sustained trouble.
But their hotchpotch collection of Italian internationals and back-packing southern hemisphere journeymen is not in the same league as their opponents.
Open-side Alex Zanni can play a bit, Luke McLean, their Aussie/Italian, is a tidy operator at the back and their front row is not to be trifled with but, overall, they do not possess enough quality to pull off the shock result they crave.
For Hurley, it is another opportunity to put himself in the Six Nations shop window but, having gone through the troughs of last season, he refuses to get ahead of himself. "It's still too early, really," he stresses. "Week to week, I'm just worried about getting myself into the starting XV here."
It is an approach that has served Hurley well this season and, in traffic-light terms, could soon see him switch from red to green.
TREVISO -- L McLean; A Vilk, A Sgarbi, G Garcia, B de Jager; M Goosen, S Picone; M Rizzo, L Ghiraldini, IF Rouyet; A Pavanello, C van Zyl; B Vermaak, A Zanni, D Kingi. Reps: D Vidal, A Allori, P di Santo, E Pavanello, M Filippucci, S Orlando, F Semenzato, T Botes.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, D Hurley; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Fogarty, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace. Reps: D Varley, J Brugnaut, T Buckley, D Ryan, J Coughlan, P Stringer, L Mafi, I Dowling.
REF -- C White.
Treviso v Munster,
Live, Sky Sports 3, 1.35