DECLAN KIDNEY'S intriguing team selection in Killiney yesterday saw a first cap for Kevin McLaughlin, the return of 25-year-old, 25-times capped 'veteran' Andrew Trimble and a flurry of conspiracy theories, most of them centring around Ronan O'Gara's inclusion at out-half in place of the injured Jonathan Sexton.
The phrase 'mind-games' got a lot of airtime amid the media throng's frenzied analysis of Kidney's pick-and-mix machinations. However, once the decision was made to allow Sexton and flanker Stephen Ferris time to recover from dead-leg and knee injuries respectively (10 days ahead of the trip to Paris), this was a selection typical of the Grand Slam-securing supremo's capacity for pragmatic fluidity.
It is a team to keep people on their toes, exploring new and returning options, and one that arrives laden down with brain-chewing questions...
What is the nature of Sexton's injury?
It carries a few names -- dead leg, a 'chopper', 'Charley Horse' or, more technically, a 'muscular haematoma in the thigh area'. While not an overly serious knock, the contusion of the quadriceps muscle can be extremely painful and requires plenty of rest and icing for it to abate properly. Sexton was carrying a niggle in the thigh area for a few weeks but not to a debilitating degree, as he showed with his draw-clinching display against London Irish two weekends ago. He trained last week and on Monday, which was when he felt "a twinge", possibly as a result of trying to overcompensate for the stiffness in his thigh. A scan on Monday night revealed muscular damage and the decision was taken to allow Sexton time to recover fully in time to challenge for a place on the side to face France on Saturday week.
What does it mean for O'Gara?
While the imperative for having top-quality, experienced options in every position heading towards the World Cup, is an entirely sensible one, no player -- particularly one as established and experienced as O'Gara -- likes being moved aside in the interests of long-term development. After an excellent performance in the draw with Australia last November, missing out against South Africa two weeks later stung, particularly with issues to resolve from the Lions tour. O'Gara responded superbly in Munster's back-to-back wins over Perpignan and has been in convincing form in the run-in to the Six Nations as the province secured a home Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Another big game on the occasion of his 94th cap is no guarantee he will start in Paris the following weekend but carrying such momentum into the clash with France will make O'Gara very hard to leave out. The contest between the two since the start of the season has, in tennis terms, been from the Borg-McEnroe/Federer-Nadal vault of compelling tussles and now the ball is back in O'Gara's court.
What does it mean for Kidney?
Solves the main selection headache as O'Gara is now an automatic pick without diminishing Ireland's capacity for opening their title-retention bid in convincing fashion.
Where it leaves Ireland's coach for the France assignment is less clear. Winning in Paris for the first time in 10 years represents a massively significant landmark for this squad on the road to the World Cup in 2011 and, assuming Sexton is available for that encounter, the Ireland coach has a big decision to make. Throw Sexton in the deep end that is a spring afternoon in Paris and see what how he copes with the next test of his international development? Or, with just a seven-day turnaround to work with, stick with the incumbent for continuity purposes, maximising the Ireland backline's chances of gelling on the back of their opening outing against the Italians.
Would Sexton have started on Saturday if fully fit?
Predictably, Kidney gave little away when this issue was raised yesterday but all the indications are that the Leinster man may well have gotten the nod had his leg not acted up.
Not because Sexton is the better option than O'Gara at out-half but because his form has been equally convincing and the only areas where he gives way to his Munster rival are in terms of international exposure and experience. Thus, it makes sense to see how the St Mary's man fares in the high-pressure environments of Stade De France and Twickenham in rounds two and three which would have furthered the argument for letting Sexton find his groove in round one.
Where does this selection leave Paddy Wallace?
Phil Connors: "Do you ever have deja vu Mrs Lancaster?"
Mrs Lancaster: "I don't think so, but I could check with the kitchen."
Truly a Groundhog Day selection for Wallace who finds himself back in familiar territory -- the role of utility cover he became accustomed to under Kidney's predecessor Eddie O'Sullivan. With the capacity to play, full-back, centre and out-half, the Ulster man was well aware that his versatility made him a prime contender for a substitute's role and deliberately set out to establish himself at inside centre for province and country.
The policy worked well and Wallace started in that position for the first three matches of Ireland's Grand Slam run last year and in the key November internationals against Australia and South Africa and acquitted himself well despite taking a heavy battering along the way.
However, Wallace's selection at out-half for the 'A' side in their defeat to the England Saxons last weekend provided two clear indications as to Kidney's thinking: (1) Wallace is the designated No 10 behind O'Gara and Sexton as the question marks surrounding Ian Humphreys' capacity for defensive physicality make him too big a risk. And (2) -- Wallace was unlikely to hold onto the No 12 jersey for Saturday with Gordon D'Arcy's recent scintillating form for Leinster proving impossible to resist. This return to the past is, obviously, not the preferred outcome for Wallace but he remains a central figure in this squad for the Six Nations and further down the road.
Are Ireland taking a risk at hooker?
A calculated one. Jerry Flannery has played one game for Shannon since November while Rory Best has 54 minutes of club rugby for Banbridge and 40 minutes for the 'A' team last Sunday after being out since the summer with a neck injury that was expected to rule him out of the season.
The nightmare scenario is Flannery going over on his ankle after three minutes and Best being required to play practically a full game against one of the most physical front rows in world rugby. However, Flannery also went into the November series of matches woefully short on game time but came through splendidly, improving with each outing which copper-fastens the decision to go with Flannery and Best while Sean Cronin provides quality back-up to Ireland's established hooking duo.
What does McLaughlin bring to the party?
Rocky Elsom's extraordinary achievements with Leinster have been well documented and the Australian did his bit for Irish rugby by dragging the province to their first Heineken Cup with obvious self-belief benefits for those involved.
That summit scaled, Ireland were also well served by Elsom's decision to return home to the Wallabies captaincy as it allowed Leinster the space to bring through McLaughlin and Sean O'Brien, the latter making his international debut in November and McLaughlin ready to earn his first cap this Saturday.
The 25-year-old was playing All-Ireland League rugby last season but has seized his opportunity brilliantly on Leinster's blindside flank and, with world-class flanker Stephen Ferris allowed time to get his body ready for a full-on assault on the French, McLaughlin faces a physical first test against the Italians.
His height advantage over O'Brien may have been a factor in his selection but he has also shown his worth this season as ball-carrier and defender with the Tullow man ready to provide impact off the bench.
Why go with Trimble and not Keith Earls?
An incredibly tight call. Earls slotted in very well on the left wing following Luke Fitzgerald's injury in November but Trimble, whose last international was under O'Sullivan at Twickenham in 2008, has banished his injury woes and looked extremely sharp for Ulster this season.
Trimble has been featuring on the right wing for his province but is no stranger to the left and his wonder try in the Heineken Cup victory over Bath could have been a deciding factor, particularly as Earls has been playing at outside centre for Munster since December. Like O'Brien, the Limerick youngster reeks of bench impact and should be first-choice understudy to captain Brian O'Driscoll at 13.
Any chance of the Italians doing a number on this Irish side?
No. Nick Mallett's men represent the ideal physical preparation for the upcoming French examination and will target an Irish scrum that they patently do not rate.
However, they face a team that has become accustomed to winning and one that is markedly superior in the back-five, at half-back and in the outside backs -- where they have the ability and expanded game plan to rip the Italians to pieces.