Lions back and ready to pump up the action
THE Lions, the pitch and the wardrobe. Leinster take their Manchester City strip to the hollow chamber of Murrayfield to face 'the black magic' of Edinburgh this weekend and, like Aslan coming back to save the Narnians, their returning Lions will be joyously received.
Although the Magners League has been up and running since the start of the month, there is an undeniable sense that the rugby season begins in earnest this week.
Munster take on the Dragons in Musgrave Park on Sunday and, like Leinster, their squad, good enough while under-strength to win two out of three, makes for truly daunting reading with the big cats in tow. Last summer's Lions captain Paul O'Connell is included in the Munster squad, but his predecessor Brian O'Driscoll is given another week's rest, so that he's ready to return for the Leinster -Munster RDS clash on Saturday week.
It is not as though Michael Cheika's backline is short of quality in O'Driscoll's absence, however, and the Leinster coach has a bewildering array of options to choose from.
Although Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan are likely to be given another opportunity to develop their relationship at half-back, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney join a three-quarter line bulging with ability and Cheika must select five from Fitzgerald, Kearney, Isa Nacewa, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey, Fergus McFadden, Shaun Berne and Simon Keogh.
Once again, Kearney returns from a summer tour with southern hemisphere eulogies ringing his ears, but not guaranteed of selection in his natural position of full-back, as Nacewa and Dempsey are both scrapping for the 15 jersey. Nacewa has been superb so far and is clearly most effective at the back.
From an Irish rugby angle, Kearney should be handed the 15 jersey for the foreseeable future, but from the point of view of juggling resources at Leinster, the back three may become inter-changeable.
Jamie Heaslip, who would walk onto most world teams (international or otherwise) at No 8, also returns to a crowded environment. Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O'Brien and Shane Jennings have been going well, with O'Brien particularly impressive in the middle of the back-row.
However, with Heaslip at eight, O'Brien may be switched to six where McLaughlin has done well, while Nathan Hines is another option there to widen Leinster's line-out options. It is interesting to see another blindside flanker, the highly rated Ireland U-20 star Dominic Ryan, included among the 14 forwards, further evidence of Cheika's encouraging record of bringing young talent through.
Tight-head Mike Ross will be looking for his second start after an accomplished showing against the Dragons a fortnight ago, but there is still no sign of CJ van der Linde, with Leinster remaining "hopeful" that he will be back for the Munster match.
As for the league champions, O'Connell is joined by Donncha O'Callaghan, Keith Earls and Ronan O'Gara, with Jerry Flannery and David Wallace expected back next week. Niall Ronan picked up a rib injury in the win over the Scarlets and may be out for a few weeks, while Paul Warwick (ankle) and Peter Stringer (calf) are also due back for the big derby. And there should be a lusty Cork welcome for South African star centre Jean De Villiers, who is expected to get at least 40 minutes.
Whether that is alongside Earls or Lifeimi Mafi remains to be seen and has implications for the left-wing slot where Denis Hurley has excelled in the position regularly filled by Ian Dowling over the past couple of seasons -- the Kilkenny man makes a welcome return for the 'A' side against Ulster 'A' tomorrow.
The absence of Ronan and Wallace leaves Munster a little short at openside, but there are still plenty of back-row options between Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy, Tommy O'Donnell, James Coughlan and Nick Williams, the Aucklander who has struggled with fitness and form since joining last year, while Donnacha Ryan could also be relocated if required.
It all makes for a fascinating weekend of action, but the precedent for the Aslan brigade is not encouraging. Going back to Nick Popplewell, through Paul Wallace, Jeremy Davidson, Eric Miller and the Irishmen on the unsuccessful 2001 and 2005 tours, there is a history of green Lions failing to readjust to their domestic chores.
However, this lot have been micro-managed and enter the fray refreshed and ready. And, without straying too far into the realms of fantasy, with the depth of talent now available to Irish rugby, the chances of a repeat of last season's glories are nearer fact than fiction.
see squads in factfile