O'Gara and Contepomi renew battle
RONAN O'GARA versus Felipe Contepomi is just one of a series of intriguing sub-plots when Ireland take on a formidable looking Barbarians outfit in Kingsholm tonight (7.45).
There is Mick O'Driscoll leading the invitational side in his last game of professional rugby, a clutch of Irish players attempting to play their way onto the summer tour to New Zealand or into the Test team, and a couple of uncapped young wingers, Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo, bursting with pace and ambition out wide.
Yet, it is the contest between a couple of old gunslingers at out-half that could decide how this match pans out.
Contepomi's disregard for Munster during his time with Leinster was well documented and his rivalry with O'Gara made for superb viewing; it will be a trip down memory lane tonight for the two 10s.
Elsewhere, Keith Earls, who recently declared his desire to bed into the No 13 jersey, is asked to fill in at 15, where he is likely to provide cover for Rob Kearney during the three-Test series against the All Blacks.
He may prefer a midfield role but the Limerick man has good previous at the back, making a try-scoring debut there against Canada in 2008 as well as a hugely effective outing in Kearney's absence when Ireland's ruined England's Grand Slam party last year.
Ireland go with the Ulster midfield pair of Darren Cave and Paddy Wallace, the latter very unlucky not to make the touring squad and also providing cover for O'Gara, with no recognised out-half on the bench.
Highly regarded Munster hooker Mike Sherry could use a solid showing to banish the memories of a grim outing in his last game, against Pro12 champions Ospreys while, with Stephen Ferris out and Paul O'Connell still on the maybe list, there are Test ambitions to pursue in the back five, particularly for the Ulster duo of Chris Henry and Dan Tuohy.
As for the opposition, the thrown-together nature of the assignment will compromise their organisation, but the game against England will have helped and, as well as Contepomi, they have some serious operators in their line-up.
Cedric Heymans at 15, Damien Traille at 12 and immensely powerful front and back-rows mean the Barbarians should provide a real test of Declan Kidney's relatively callow selection, particularly with a bench containing players of the calibre of Neemia Tialata, Richie Rees and Isa Nacewa.
James Coughlan's consistency for Munster for the past number of seasons has been recognised with a spot on the Ireland bench where Rory Best, Donncha O'Callaghan and Andrew Trimble add considerable experience.
These affairs are never really about the result and, for Ireland, it is about game time and player assessment. Kidney badly needs Declan Fitzpatrick and Brett Wilkinson to come through strongly at scrum time and a solid overall performance.
What he does not need is a confidence-sapping defeat or any further injuries. Given the luck he has had to endure on that front this season, the Ireland coach is due a bit of fortune.
IRELAND -- K Earls; C Gilroy, D Cave, P Wallace, S Zebo; R O'Gara (capt), C Murray; B Wilkinson, M Sherry, D Fitzpatrick; D Tuohy, D Ryan; J Muldoon, C Henry, P O'Mahony. Reps: R Best, R Loughney, D O'Callaghan, J Coughlan, P Marshall, N Spence, A Trimble.
BARBARIANS -- C Heymans; P Sackey, M Tindall, D Traille, S Tagicakibau; F Contepomi, R Lawson; D Jones, B August, J Afoa; M O'Driscoll (capt), C Van Zyl; M Gorgodze, F Louw, R Lakafia. Reps: A de Malmanche, N Tialata, P Taele, A Qera, R Rees, S Donald, I Nacewa.
REF -- J Garces (France)