Coughlan leads Wolfhounds' hunt for senior squad places
AS much as Declan Kidney would like to start Ireland's season with a win, the result in Galway tonight is of secondary importance.
England have named a hugely exciting and extremely strong team, boasting six full internationals.
Ireland include seven players with Test caps. Two of them – wings Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald – have significant international experience, with 24 (including one for the Lions) and 49 caps respectively.
Fitzgerald is back on the international scene for the first time in over 12 months, but Trimble's haul dwarfs the total number of senior caps in the Saxons side.
Wolfhounds matches are always curious affairs from an Irish perspective and the selections are always shaded by different needs. England, for example, have the freedom to approach these fixtures solely for building for the future.
International rugby in Ireland is not afforded the same latitude, and these 'A' games must always serve a dual purpose.
The Six Nations is not, we have been told repeatedly, a vehicle for experimentation.
It is the financial life-blood of the IRFU and, as such, there is no opportunity during the competition to trial new players because the pressure to win at all costs outweighs all other considerations.
The obvious solution then would be to use games such as tonight's as a platform to audition the next generation.
However, Kidney doesn't have that latitude because he is also under pressure to win tonight and get the likes of Michael Bent some game time, as the Kiwi-born prop will almost certainly be pressed into service during the Six Nations.
The situation isn't improved by tonight's game being the Wolfhounds' only outing of the season.
So, in effect, the likes of Darren Cave, Fitzgerald, Mike Sherry, Kevin McLaughlin and tonight's captain James Coughlan have this, and only this, opportunity to force their way into the Six Nations squad proper.
Coughlan's selection as captain is an interesting one. While he is a long shot so make the Six Nations squad, there must always be room left to manoeuvre and he is a player who has consistently defied the critics.
The 32-year-old back-row was surprisingly omitted from the original training squad by Kidney, a Dolphin clubmate.
But another outstanding performance for Munster in their demolition of Racing Metro last weekend meant he couldn't, in all conscience, be ignored for this outing.
It is a wonder that Coughlan hasn't won full international recognition to date. He has represented Ireland at Sevens level and featured in the non-cap game against the Barbarians last June, but a senior cap has eluded him thus far.
When queried about Coughlan's omission from the original squad, Kidney's response was less than convincing as he referenced the need to look to the future, a less than subtle suggestion that Coughlan's age was against him.
That might have been a valid reason had Kidney not capped 31-year-old Mike McCarthy last summer and included a host of 30-somethings, all older that Coughlan, in the original 39-man squad called into Carton House last week.
Coughlan has made a habit of proving people wrong in their assessment of how far he can progress. When he was signed by Munster as a 26-year-old on a development contract it was assumed he would spend his time as tackle-bag holder.
He has, however, effortlessly stepped up from AIL player to Celtic League standard to being Munster's most consistent forward in the Heineken Cup over the last two to three seasons, a level that's regularly lauded as being as close to international standard as you can get.
It should also be in his favour that he and Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip are the only specialist No 8s in the wider party. If Coughlan proves himself again tonight, will Kidney be able to continue to ignore his claims to be included in the Six Nations squad as back-up to Heaslip?
Similarly, Fitzgerald's selection is hugely exciting, as is the faith being shown in Connacht's Robbie Henshaw at full-back. Henshaw has, Kidney revealed, taken to his new-found status with ease.
"For a lad just out of school, Robbie has gone about his business very well," said Kidney.
"He has slotted straight in and you would not know he is the youngest about the place by any means. He just goes about his business and hopefully by having a few days in with us now – he might not be in camp again until next November – he will have got a taste for it."
Henshaw is at one end of the scale while the likes of Trimble and, in particular, Bent are at the other. They will both expect to be included in the list of 30 names Kidney calls back next week.
How Bent fares against Gloucester's Nick Wood at scrum time will also be keenly viewed. Bent had two very uncomfortable outings for Leinster against Ulster and Connacht over Christmas and he really needs to start proving his credentials as a tighthead of international standard.
If he can lock the Ireland scrum tonight he will, at least, start the process of establishing himself as a credible alternative to Mike Ross.
There is no shortage of motivation for the Ireland players at the Sportsground. Kidney has given the incentive of elevation to the Six Nations squad for those who impress, and the players will also be motivated by the quality of the opposition.
England's line-up is full of Premiership performers and on paper they should have too much quality and experience for the Irish side.
Traditionally, however, the Saxons team is usually full of individuals playing for themselves rather than the collective.
Ireland's players will, for certain, be unified after their week in camp. However, it's hard to see it being enough to secure a win. Those who excel and earn a call-up to the senior set-up for next week will find some consolation.
Verdict: England Saxons
Ireland Wolfhounds – R Henshaw (Connacht, 0 caps); A Trimble (Ulster, 49 caps), D Cave (Ulster, 3 caps), D McSharry (Connacht, 0 caps), L Fitzgerald (Leinster, 23 caps + 1 for Lions); P Jackson (Ulster, 0 caps), P Marshall (Ulster, 0 caps); D Kilcoyne (Munster, 2 caps), M Sherry (Munster, 0 caps), M Bent (Leinster, 2 caps); L Stevenson (Ulster, 0 caps), D Toner (Leinster, 3 caps); K McLaughlin (Leinster, 5 caps), T O'Donnell (Munster, 0 caps), J Coughlan (Munster, captain, 0 caps). Reps: D Varley (Munster, 2 caps), T Court (Ulster, 29 caps), D Fitzpatrick (Ulster, 2 caps), I Henderson (Ulster, 2 caps), R Ruddock (Leinster, 1 cap), I Boss (Leinster, 15 caps), I Madigan (Leinster, 0 caps), I Keatley (Munster, 2 caps).
England Saxons – E Daly (Wasps); C Wade (London Wasps), J Tomkins (Saracens), J Turner-Hall (Harlequins), T Biggs (Bath); G Ford (Leicester Tigers), R Wigglesworth (Saracens); N Wood (Gloucester), J Gray (Harlequins), P Doran-Jones (Northampton Saints); G Kitchener (Leicester Tigers), G Robson (Harlequins); G Kruis (Saracens), W Fraser (Saracens), J Crane (Leicester Tigers, captain). Reps: R Buchanan (Harlequins), M Mullan (Worcester Warriors), S Knight (Gloucester), E Slater (Leicester Tigers), J Gibson (London Irish), J Simpson (Wasps), G Lowe (Harlequins), K Eastmond (Bath).
Ireland Wolfhounds v England Saxons,
Live, RTE 2, 7.35