Ireland's fringe men determined to seize last chance for Six Nations places
THE front-line internationals may have the weekend off, but for those on the fringes of Joe Schmidt's plans for the final assault on the Six Nations title, this weekend represents a visit to the last chance saloon.
With no Pro12 action next weekend, this is the final opportunity for the likes of Simon Zebo, Tommy O'Donnell and Donnacha Ryan to force their way into the coach's reckoning as they start for Munster against the Scarlets in Wales this evening, while Luke Fitzgerald can make an impression for Leinster.
The winger will line out alongside most of the Ireland replacements who took on England last weekend and will start against Glasgow Warriors tonight, with Fergus McFadden's selection at outside-centre of particular interest given Brian O'Driscoll's calf problems.
Although Robbie Henshaw, named at full-back for Connacht's meeting with Treviso today, took the former captain's place in training last week as he recovered from the cramp he suffered at Twickenham, McFadden is being asked to cover a host of positions across the backline off the bench and it is likely the Ireland coach had some hand in his selection in the Leinster midfield.
Fitzgerald's untimely injury ruled him out of the opening three games, but having been part of Schmidt's initial plans and in fine form before the Six Nations began the 26-year-old will be looking to force a recall.
The in-form Zebo looks like a long shot despite his try-scoring exploits in the Pro12 as Schmidt looks set to continue with Dave Kearney on the left wing for the final two games.
With Tommy Bowe making a try-scoring return from his lengthy absence in Ulster's 38-8 victory over the Dragons at Ravenhill last night, Ryan is another who will be looking to impress as he starts his third successive game since returning from a knee injury, while O'Donnell will be keen to win his place on the bench back from Leinster's Jordi Murphy, who starts at No 8 for his province.
Matt O'Connor can call on the entire set of front-row replacements from Twickenham in Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Marty Moore, while Ian Madigan's start is significant considering Johnny Sexton's thumb troubles as he partners Eoin Reddan, who could leapfrog replacement Isaac Boss on to the Ireland bench.