Tony Ward: What if we still had the dreaded Final Trial for Ireland's Call 2015?
It's that time of the year again. At least so it once went for a different generation of players as the Final Trial came around far too quickly for comfort. What's the Final Trial? I can almost hear the decibel level rising from supporters of the new-age game.
Well for an older generation with ambitions of representing their country, substitute turkey and pud' for the dreaded Final Trial as the festive season brought with it (if you were 'lucky' enough to be selected) that last chance saloon to make the squad for the Five Nations. It was that opportunity on completion of the inter-provincial series to state your final case in front of the judging panel of five selectors (usually two Ulster, two Leinster and one from Munster) plus two sub selectors (including the token Connacht contribution).
It was steeped in political shenanigans and all the associated skulduggery - and let no one kid you otherwise. Riddled with political self interest, it did, to some degree, serve its information-gathering purpose at the time.
Now, between the Guinness Pro 12 (particularly the derby element), European Champions Cup and, of course, November series of inter-hemisphere internationals, the need is no longer there. Although that said, Warren Gatland - despite what seems information overload - did demand of the WRU the playing of one such trial at the tail end of last season.
So given the time of year that's in it, let's turn back the clock and play a little bit of 'What if?'. What if Joe Schmidt put in a similar request to the IRFU and what if' the majority of the walking wounded (with the exception of Chris Henry) were back fit and firing on all cylinders, and up for Six Nations selection. For the purpose of the exercise, we will presume this following XV from the hugely successful Autumn International Series to be set in stone: R Kearney (Leinster), T Bowe (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), G D'Arcy (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Ulster); D Toner (Leinster), P O'Connell - Capt (Munster); P O'Mahony (Munster), R Ruddock (Leinster) and J Heaslip (Leinster).
All replacements used against the Springboks and Wallabies, plus the match day squad against the Georgians allied to those now returning from long-term injury, are up for inclusion. So starting at full-back, it's Felix Jones on current form (as back-up to Rob Kearney) on the Probables with Darragh Leader the Possibles full-back (although how he is going to get the relevant game time with Mils Muliaina now in last line situ at Connacht I don't know).
I do believe there to be a very strong case for Jared Payne wearing 15 but for now his Schmidt intention seems two digits down. On the wings for the Whites (Probables) it's Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney - last season's hugely successful wing combination, which in itself says a lot. For the Blues (Possibles) it's Keith Earls on the right with Craig Gilroy on the left. Bear in mind that still leaves no place for Fergus McFadden, whose versatility sees him as the most obvious replacement cover from inside centre out. In midfield we are spoilt for choice. The dilemma for Schmidt is in getting the chemistry right as in the best combination rather than focussing purely on individual strengths. Take your pick from Payne, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Luke Fitzgerald, Ian Madigan, JJ Hanrahan, Noel Reid, Brendan Macken, Luke Marshall and you've got the drift. For me it's Payne and Olding versus Fitzgerald and Marshall with the Whites and Blues respectively.
At half-back, the Leinster pairing of Eoin Reddan and Madigan get the nod ahead of Kieran Marmion and Ian Keatley, leaving Luke McGrath, Isaac Boss, Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson and Ian Humphreys looking in. Up front it's Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Rodney Ah You to face Dave Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin and Marty Moore, but with James Cronin, Damien Varley, Nathan White, Stephen Archer, James Cronin, Denis Buckley, Declan Fitzpatrick and Tadgh Leader also fighting for inclusion.
The boiler house (expression betraying age) sees Dave Foley and Mike McCarthy up against Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan, leaving Lewis Stevenson on the margin. The back-row pairs Jordi Murphy, Tommy O'Donnell and Sean O'Brien (wearing eight) against Iain Henderson, Dominic Ryan and Robin Copeland wearing blue. Even that still leaves a back row of Robbie Diack, Shane Jennings and Jack Conan, plus Kevin McLaughlin out in the cold. Watch for Conan - his day is fast coming.
So here is the 2014/15 Final Trial make up.
Probables - F Jones (Munster); A Trimble (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), S Olding (Ulster), D Kearney (Leinster); I Madigan (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Strauss (Leinster), R Ah You (Connacht); D Foley (Munster), M McCarthy (Leinster); J Murphy (Leinster), T O'Donnell (Munster) and S O'Brien (Leinster).
POSSIBLES - D Leader (Connacht); K Earls (Munster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), C Gilroy (Ulster); I Keatley (Munster), K Marmion (Connacht); D Kilcoyne (Munster), S Cronin (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster); D Tuohy (Ulster), Donnacha Ryan (Munster); I Henderson (Ulster), Dominic Ryan (Leinster) and Robin Copeland (Munster).
Of course Schmidt and, more importantly, the players are spared the trial ordeal through much more meaningful Pro 12 derbies. How lucky are they?
Elwood return a master stroke by IRFU
"Connacht Rugby and the IRFU are delighted to announce that former head coach Eric Elwood (left) has been appointed to the role of Domestic Rugby Manager for the province." So ran the official blurb as things just get better and better at our hitherto Cindrerella province.
As right fits go, this is as good as it gets. Elwood's passion for the game in his native province needs little elaboration but what we are getting when two clearly smart heads combine, as in Connacht CEO Willie Ruane and IRFU Director of Rugby Development and the club game, Scott Walker, is one who has been at both ends of the amateur vs professional spectrum.
Not for a minute are we suggesting the new man will have all the answers, but given his experience and the way he operates, he will look to bring both sides of this ever-deepening divide as close to each other as they can possibly get. Only time will tell if he has that magic touch, but in terms of optimism, January and the re-employment of Elwood at the Sportsground can't come quickly enough.