Fitzgerald off leash for Wolfhounds opportunity
LUKE FITZGERALD will pull on an Irish jersey for the first time in over a year when he runs out with the Wolfhounds against England Saxons on Friday night.
Fitzgerald is one of the more experienced campaigners included in the squad as the Ireland management have reconsidered original plans to use the game as a vehicle to give some marquee players an opportunity to stretch their legs.
Considerable thought had been given to including the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney in the squad but, assistant coach Les Kiss explained, the need to do so receded once those players came through their club games at the weekend.
"When we picked the squad the thinking was that the opportunity to use the Saxons game in that way was certainly there," said Kiss.
"When speaking specifically about Brian and Co, it's driven a lot by them too and whether or not they want that opportunity.
"It was never a case of saying 'you have to do it'. And it's not required now. They're in good nick and we're happy with where they are fitness and sharpness wise."
However, Friday's outing is still hugely important in determining the back-up roles for the start of the Six Nations on Saturday week.
Who, for example, will sit on the bench as back-up to Cian Healy? Will Michael Bent be preferred to Declan Fitzpatrick on game day? The days for the 'A' matches being unimportant are long past. Craig Gilroy, for example, came to prominence against Fiji in the non-cap outing in November, something Kiss highlighted.
"The Wolfhounds game is, first and foremost, an opportunity for guys to put their hands up for selection for the squad against Wales," he said.
"Everyone who plays on Friday night can force their way into the Six Nations squad, just like some guys did in the game against Fiji in November."
Realistically, the squad for the Wales game is more or less determined with, at most, one or two starting berths to be decided.
Where this game will be useful is, as mentioned, in determining the back-up props as well as assessing Fitzgerald's readiness for international fray. The 2009 Lion has shown outstanding form since his return with Leinster this month. Gilroy and Simon Zebo are ahead of him as the incumbents from November but that can change.
Andrew Trimble will also be hoping to make a favourable impression after losing out to Gilroy for the Argentina game in the autumn.
There are a number of other interesting selections, and Connacht's Robbie Henshaw was referenced by Kiss as one the coaching team are very interested in seeing in action.
"Robbie's a very exciting young player and he's shown his versatility in filling in at full-back for Connacht this season too. There are a number of younger guys we are keen to have a look at. The more competition we have for places the better we'll be," Kiss said.
It will, however, take something spectacular for someone to force their way into the reckoning, but with the 2015 World Cup in mind, Friday's game will serve a dual purpose as replacements for O'Driscoll and his ilk will need to be unearthed in time for that tournament.
Knocking on Kidney's door
1 Dave Kilcoyne v Tom Court
This is one of the big questions Declan Kidney and his coaches must face. Kilcoyne (top right) has done exceptionally well for Munster this season and also impressed in November. His open-field play is outstanding – his ball-carrying is top-notch. He was particularly effective in this regard for Munster last weekend.
Court, on the other hand, is a scrummager of some renown. The Ulster man (bottom right) was made a scapegoat against England last year when circumstances forced him onto the field at tighthead. He clearly struggled in that game but the scrum was in trouble long before he was brought on and asked/forced to play out of his usual position.
If it's a scrummaging prop the Ireland coaches want, then Court might get the nod; if it's an open-field loosehead, then it'll be advantage to Kilcoyne.
2 Michael Bent v Declan Fitzpatrick
Just as it was with John Hayes, the nation lives in fear of Mike Ross stubbing a toe getting out of the shower. There is a dearth of international-standard tighthead props in Irish rugby, as highlighted by Bent (top right) winning two caps seconds after setting foot in Ireland for the first time in his life.
That move devalued the Irish jersey but, according to the IRFU and team management, there was no alternative because of injuries to other Irish-qualified tightheads.
The jury is still very much out on Bent given his struggles against Connacht and Ulster over Christmas. Fitzpatrick (bottom right) looked good in last season's Heineken Cup semi-final but is again behind John Afoa in Ulster's pecking order. It's a toss of a coin between them at this stage.
Fitzgerald's return to action and his scintillating form for Leinster in his two appearances in January is hugely exciting.
He is an outrageous talent. Not only is he an attacking threat but he is also a huge presence in defence, which could see him force his way into the back three against Wales. Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo are the front-runners but Fitzgerald's defensive capabilities could tip the balance, especially if he shows form on Friday night.