Tony Ward: Earls can become centre of attention
There was a time when, for players with representative aspirations, the festive season was all about the Final Trial -- the dreaded Final Trial. It was something we all wanted to avoid.
Easier said than done. I played in more of these terrible games than I care to remember. I can't recall a single one (even leading to my first cap) with any degree of fondness.
The present generation don't know how lucky they are -- privileged to be paid for doing what they do and lucky in never having to endure the Final Trial ritual.
If you were picked on the Probables (Whites XV), the omens were good, but the experience was wretched. If you were on the Possibles (Blues XV) you were in "give it a lash" territory: everything to gain and little to lose.
The preparation was, to say the least, shoddy. You travelled to Dublin on a Friday night and had a light run-out, with the XV seldom making it to the session in time.
It was a joke -- with the laugh on every one of us amateur eejits who ran out the following day and played as if our very lives depended upon it.
Back then, such was the desire and so limited the opportunity, you felt your reason for living -- Ireland selection -- was on the line. And given the seven-selector system (five full selectors and two sub-selectors), it was on the line.
We put ourselves through this mental and physical torture for the love of the game and to be as good as we could be in a system riddled with subterfuge. How could it be any other way given the inequality of the selector system at the time?
But that was then. These days, the process is so much easier for head coach Declan Kidney -- and it is transparent for the players.
No longer do they have to face the demeaning Final Trial just prior to Christmas or immediately after. Instead, the Pro12 and Heineken Cup provide a definitive form guide.
So where do Kidney and his charges stand at the moment?
Were a Probables side being picked for a 2012 Trial, outside-centre, the No 4 shirt and perhaps out-half are the only positions in need of review.
Assuming Gordon D'Arcy is fit and firing, his presence will be crucial in helping whoever is picked at No 13. The debate centres around Fergus McFadden, Keith Earls and Paddy Wallace.
Wallace, for all his versatility, has still to impose himself at this level and is happier at No 12. That would leave it between McFadden and Earls.
Were McFadden to make it an ex-Clongowes pairing in midfield, it would be a selection well earned. That said, and despite the odd glitch in defence, when I see Earls hit the line with pace at varying angles, it reminds me of the consistent line-breaking of his underage days.
He has bulked up and has that ability to create space where none exists. Despite his pace, he is not a natural winger, no more than he is a full-back.
With Donnacha Ryan edging out Donncha O'Callaghan at Munster, logic would see him paired with Paul O'Connell to face the Welsh.
At out-half it would be Jonathan Sexton to start the campaign.
As for the Possibles? There are new candidates in the frame.
In Leinster, Eoin O'Malley, Ian Madigan and Devin Toner stand out.
In the North, I have been taken by the form of Paul Marshall and wing Craig Gilroy. Marshall, in particular, has an influential presence at No 9. He is already third-choice Ireland scrum-half behind Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan in my reckoning.
There is a whole host of new kids on the Munster block -- Luke O'Dea, Sean Scanlon, Danny Barnes, Simon Zebo, Peter O'Mahony and Billy Holland. The entire Munster back-row of O'Mahony, Niall Ronan and James Coughlan is worthy of inclusion -- so too Zebo, who looks increasingly composed on the wing.
Denis Hurley -- much like Gavin Duffy for Connacht -- has been the epitome of solidity in the last line.
The only real issue is at tight-head, where Tom Court's ability to operate either side is as critical as the ongoing health of Cian Healy and Mike Ross.
Tony Buckley was back in the Sale starting eight at the weekend and it is imperative he maintains consistency as back-up to Ross.