Opportunity knocks for Horan and Wallace
Players must grab chance to impress in Ireland 'A' clash against Saxons
Ireland's involvement in 'B' or shadow internationals began in the mid-Seventies, 1975 to be precise. Initially, there was only one game a season -- against England, France or Scotland -- until 1990 when Michael Bradley and Kelvin Leahy led the 'B' team against Argentina and Scotland respectively.
The initial criterion for selection was that it was open only to non-capped players. As a concept it was fantastic and one I support wholeheartedly to this day.
However, the conditions for selection have changed dramatically in the interim and, it must be said, everything is operated in the right spirit, with most countries using it almost entirely as a developmental process.
In terms of bridging the gap between professional club/province/region and rugby at the highest level, the place of these 'B' matches (renamed 'A' internationals in 1992) must be protected at all cost. For financial reasons the IRFU has opted out in the past, but this should not be allowed to happen again.
Irish rugby enjoyed a magical year in 2009. We may not see its like again and I'm not sure a price tag could be put on that incredible March day in Cardiff, but everything must be in place to ensure that we maintain the bar as high as possible.
Declan Kidney's contribution and that of his carefully selected management team has been well documented and equally well acknowledged. Beating the Welsh, thereby completing a first-ever Six Nations Grand Slam, represented the pinnacle, yet the professional in Kidney placed the US and the Churchill Cup at the top of his developmental agenda.
It would be stretching it to suggest that the Churchill Cup success was in the same league as the Grand Slam, but as part of the Kidney strategy working towards New Zealand 2011, it was massive. We field a pretty formidable senior line-up at this point in time, but our resources, relative to others, remain scarce. Nursing the next layer, if we are to advance to the higher level (World Cup contenders), is imperative and to that end the relevance of shadow internationals needs little elaboration.
The trail-blazers, that first ever Ireland 'B' team, were 9-6 winners over France at Lansdowne Road in a tempestuous encounter and they lined out thus: Larry Moloney (Garryowen); Johnny Fortune (UCD), John Coleman (Highfield), Ray Finn (UCD), Bertie Smith (Cork Con); Hugh Condon (London Irish), Donal Canniffe (Lansdowne) (capt); Ned Byrne (Blackrock), Johnny Cantrell (UCD), Tom Feighery (St Mary's); Eddie Molloy (Garryowen), Davy Dalton (Malone); Alan McLean (Ballymena), Mick Casserly (Galwegians) and Harry Steele (Ballymena). Only Feighery and Dalton were re-selected for the return game in Dijon 12 months later.
Then, as now, it enabled players move up a notch in terms of mental preparation. Physically, too, it was a different game at representative level. Now conditioning is not an issue, with most professional games outside of the full Test arena played at a tempo and level of intensity of at least an 'A' international.
Kidney is not one to show his hand, but the scheduling of tomorrow's game against the England Saxons at the Recreation Ground in Bath has necessitated, to some degree, that he reveal his current thinking, certainly in midfield and probably at scrum-half too.
Against that, in the front and back-rows, opportunity knocks for the returning Marcus Horan and Rory Best, as well as wing forwards Shane Jennings and Sean O'Brien, lining out alongside each other in search of success over the English, but, much more realistically, competing for the replacement back-row slot (in place of the injured Denis Leamy) in the senior squad to take on the Italians.
Undoubtedly, it is the half-back combination which most catches the eye. Kidney places great store in Paddy Wallace, and with good reason. Their relationship goes back to the 1998 U-19 World Cup-winning side when Wallace was out-half.
It is a strange call, given Wallace has not, to the best of my knowledge, lined out in the pivotal position for Ulster thus far this year. But here again, I suspect, it is the bigger picture coming into play.
It would appear the third out-half position, beyond Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton, remains pretty fluid, with the head coach still open-minded having viewed Ian Humphreys, Ian Keatley and Niall O'Connor in the position for province and 'A' side. In weighing experience against potential, it would appear the Wallace experiment -- if we can call it such -- is heavily tilted towards the former.
Wallace will still compete with Gordon D'Arcy for the inside centre spot, but for me (and I suspect Kidney), on all evidence to date, the player to wear the No 12 shirt against the Azzurri is a no-brainer. At scrum-half he is spoilt for choice, but, as of now, it looks like Tomas O'Leary, Eoin Reddan, Peter Stringer and Isaac Boss in that order. Boss' form of late deserves better and no doubt he will be given some reasonable game time at the Rec for the second time in a week tomorrow.
The return of Horan (for club and province) and Best (for club) has provided the real boost ahead of tomorrow's game. Best, in particular, has become a real stalwart and leader in this Irish set-up. He has that X- factor in terms of squad presence, but also a burning desire whereby injury, however long-term, is but an occupational irritant to be overcome. Much like Brian O'Driscoll, he is one of those players you know requires minimal rehabilitation because the mental resolve is so strong.
Indeed, the entire front-row -- Tony Buckley included -- is operating on a high-stake incentive tomorrow. So too O'Brien and Jennings, as their provincial duel moves up a notch. For Ian Dowling, denied Munster game time due to Denis Hurley's consistently good form, it represents a rare high-profile opportunity to make a point.
With revenge on the Saxon agenda for Churchill Cup final defeat and with so much to play for individually, it represents an 'A' game guaranteed to whet the Six Nations appetite and in the process reinforces, if such were necessary, the inspired move the IRFU made when it entered that 'B' arena for the first time some 35 years ago.