Ireland in a tight spot
IT is not hard to be positive about Irish rugby at present.
Another 100pc European weekend for the provinces augurs very well for Ireland's Six Nations prospects ahead of today's squad announcement and, while injuries to Denis Leamy, Rory Best and Luke Fitzgerald have queered the pitch somewhat, there is enough strength in depth in those positions to cope: the first-choice XV and immediate back-up are looking pretty secure at this stage.
A back three of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls, with Shane Horgan, Andrew Trimble and Denis Hurley in reserve; a midfield of Brian O'Driscoll and either Gordon D'Arcy or Paddy Wallace, with Earls available as cover; Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton contesting the No 10 jersey with the two Ians, Humphreys and Keatley, behind them; and Peter Stringer, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss and Frank Murphy provide good back-up to scrum-half Tomas O'Leary.
There are a host of back-row options behind the established trio of Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace and, similarly, in the second row behind Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell, with Leo Cullen and Donnacha Ryan heading the queue of engine room-understudies.
Marcus Horan, Cian Healy and Tom Court provide decent depth at loose-head prop, as do Sean Cronin, the Fogarty brothers and Nigel Brady behind first-choice hooker Jerry Flannery.
Which leaves us with the perennial problem of tight-head prop and what to do if Ireland have to cope without the remarkable durability of John Hayes.
The Cappamore man has been practically ever-present in the No 3 jersey since making his debut against Scotland in the 2000 Six Nations and, all going to plan, will win his 100th cap for Ireland in this 2010 competition.
Under the careful protection policies of the IRFU and national coach Declan Kidney, Hayes is playing as consistently as ever and is likely to be still in situ when the 2011 World Cup rolls around, despite the fact he will be pushing 38.
However, since Paul Wallace's retirement in the early part of the last decade, there has been no outstanding candidate for his berth in the team, a situation which still prevails, and in such a vital position, this is far from ideal.
Court, Mike Ross and Tony Buckley are the leading alternatives, but there are caveats associated with each -- not least the issue of their lack of regular game time.
Former Ireland captain Terry Kingston played with some quality Irish tight-heads during his international career, props of the calibre of Des Fitzgerald, Jim McCoy, Gary Halpin and Peter Clohessy.
While heartily encouraged at the progress Irish rugby has made over the past 10 years, the 29-times capped hooker knows how crucial it is to have depth at tight-head and believes this propping conundrum is the biggest issue facing Kidney.
"It's a major problem," said Kingston. "Not just for the Six Nations but looking down the road to the World Cup, when Hayes is going to be nearly 38.
"Somebody needs to stand up and, at the moment, there is no obvious candidate if something happens to Hayes.
"The tight-head is the anchor: you need him to lock the scrum and Tony Buckley has struggled there in that regard.
"Mike Ross looks like one of the better tight-heads around and he is a specialist tight-head which is important because it's such a technical position.
"But Ross is not getting any game time with Leinster, so if he had to go in, he would be going in cold.
"I think Tom Court has come on a lot and is doing extremely well this season at Ulster but is he a loose or a tight? There is massive difference between the two.
"Peter Clohessy made the switch across with great success for Munster and Ireland, but it is a lot easier to move from tight to loose than the other way round: tight-head is a far more difficult position than loose-head, technically and physically.
"The way it works is that the loose-head and hooker work together to put pressure on the opposing tight-head. If you think there is any weakness there you attack him together, so the tight-head comes under a lot more pressure."
Ross was on the bench for Leinster's Heineken Cup victory over Brive last weekend but did not get a run as South African CJ van der Linde replaced Stan Wright on the tight-head side in the second-half. Indeed, if the Heineken Cup did not operate different rules regarding the use of an extra prop substitute, it is unlikely Ross would have made the bench in the first place.
Court is enjoying a superb season with Ulster and produced a man-of-the-match-worthy performance in Ireland's win over Fiji in November. But that display came at loose-head and, although Court has the capacity to play both sides of the scrum, BJ Botha has been keeping him out of the No 3 slot at Ravenhill.
It is a situation which does the national side no favours and Kingston is frustrated by the provinces' foreign players preventing Irish contenders from getting regular game time in key positions.
"It is a major problem. Leinster have two overseas guys ahead of Ross and we can't see what Court is made of at tight-head because they have Botha, one of the best around," he said.
"The IRFU have done extremely well in terms of resting players and getting the right preparation time but the foreign player thing is an area that has to be addressed because it is not helping Declan's situation. Not just here: England are having problems bringing guys through in key areas because of all the foreigners playing there.
"It happened here before with out-half when there was no alternative to ROG (O'Gara) because the provinces were using foreign out-halves. Thankfully, that is no longer the situation and we have four Irish guys at the four provinces (O'Gara, Sexton, Humphreys and Keatley) but the foreign player issue is something that definitely has to be looked at."
In the meantime, Irish rugby needs to touch wood and hope that Hayes is available to do in the new decade what he did in the last.
THREE TIGHT-HEAD CONTENDERS
Pros: Has come on hugely, impressing in the tight and loose for Ulster this season.
Cons: Playing at loose-head due to the presence of BJ Botha.
Pros: Powerful scrummager who proved his worth in the English Premiership and has worked hard on his game around the park.
Cons: Third-choice tight-head at Leinster behind CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright.
Pros: Outstanding off the bench against Fiji, Buckley can be devastating as a counter-rucker and ball-carrier.
Cons: Has struggled badly in the scrum, notably against Court in Munster's recent defeat to Ulster.