Ireland look on bright side as raft of injuries opens door for young guns
RHYS RUDDOCK, Fergus McFadden, Damien Varley -- names that, it is fair to say, were not within a donkey's roar of inclusion in the Ireland 22 for last season's Six Nations opener against Italy, but who are now all in genuine contention for a place in the 22 that heads to Rome next week.
The wave of injuries that has swept over Declan Kidney's squad is, obviously, far from ideal, but it also highlights the good work that has been done over the past few seasons under the head coach's repeatedly stated policy of squad development.
There are six Lions among the eight senior players definitely ruled out of Saturday week's clash and another two, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris, on the doubtful list. If the same scenario had unfolded during Eddie O'Sullivan's tenure, it would have meant throwing a raft of players in at the deep end but, while there could still be an element of that in the Stadio Flaminio next week, the players ready to step up have all been around the scene under Kidney -- works in progress, ready to come to fruition.
Albeit in unfortunate circumstances, it has created a stir of excitement around next week's selection and has also added a large dollop of motivation to the Wolfhounds, who head to Scotland for tomorrow night's 'A' game with the scent of a Six Nations start in their nostrils.
"I don't want to go overboard, but it is probably a bit more (injuries) than usual," admitted team manager Paul McNaughton yesterday.
"I didn't think we'd be sitting here calling time on four players (Jamie Heaslip, Andrew Trimble, John Hayes and Shane Horgan) for the first two games of the Six Nations, and obviously Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy are out too.
"We'll be keeping an eye on the likes of Rory Best and Tommy Bowe and if either of those are declared out on Wednesday or Thursday, we may have to call back a couple of guys from the 'A' squad -- but we want to keep that as strong as possible until we find out what the story is. Three or four of those (injured) guys would have been in the 22 for Italy, so the other guys who are fit are conscious of that and training with enthusiasm."
The Six Nations before a World Cup is always a somewhat awkward affair. There tends to be a debate as to whether you adopt the England 2003 approach and play your strongest XV in every game in pursuit of silverware and confidence heading for the bigger prize down the road, or use the competition as an opportunity to tweak and experiment with a view to formulating the best squad for the World Cup challenge.
Kidney has always stated that he does not believe in experimentation for experimentation's sake, believing that it cheapens the jersey and, with a clean bill of health, there was likely to be have been a tried-and-trusted quality to his Six Nations selections.
However, just as on last summer's injury-ravaged, winless, but ultimately productive tour to New Zealand and Australia, there is now the opportunity to try out the bubbling-under brigade in a competitive international environment which could stand to Ireland at New Zealand 2011.
Starting with McFadden. Desperately unlucky to miss out on senior squad selection after a string of superb showings for Leinster, McFadden, although he made his name in the centre, is a live contender for the Ireland back three due to his excellent displays on the wing.
Elsewhere, with Heaslip out, Sean O'Brien (whose form demanded inclusion in any case) is in line to slot in to the Irish back-row, with yet another in-form Leinster player, Shane Jennings, on hand should Ferris be ruled out.
However, Jennings is most effective in David Wallace's No 7 jersey and if there was the need for a specialist blind-side then the 20-year-old Ruddock, who stepped up to the plate in major way when he was a surprise call up to last summer's tour, has to be in the frame (and that is before you factor in the exciting, unblooded 'A' options of Dominic Ryan and Willie Faloon).
Jerry Flannery is another senior figure ruled out for the opening Six Nations skirmishes, while his long-time rival Best is battling a rib injury. It leaves Sean Cronin, who has benefitted hugely from Kidney's squad development policy, ready to continue his impressive international progress at hooker and pushes Varley firmly into the picture also.
Varley has more than justified the decision to involve him in the summer tour with his form for Munster this season and has carried the provincial burden of responsibility thrust upon him by the absences of Flannery and Denis Fogarty with assurance. Neither Cronin nor Varley is the finished article, but they are both dynamic, driven hookers ready to announce themselves to a wider audience.
Finally, the back three crisis might just see Fionn Carr, the most thrilling runner in the Irish game, get the chance to get involved in some capacity, which would be welcomed by those who are convinced his X-factor qualities should be part of Ireland's World Cup endeavours.
"I know it's coach's cliché, but we are looking at it as one game at a time, a tournament in itself," said Ireland defence coach Les Kiss yesterday.
"It may not look good at the moment (injury-wise), but we have ambitions to do well, we are not going to put this Six Nations away and look at the World Cup. Yes, it's a few more injuries than we would have liked, but it's a chance for other guys -- we are building a panel and this exposure is going to serve us well."