Tony Ward: Earls set to miss out but he's our future No 13
Published 19/01/2013 | 05:00
So what have we learned from Declan Kidney's extended 39-man squad selection for the upcoming Wolfhounds game and the opening Six Nations clash against Wales?
It includes almost every player in the shake-up bar Kevin McLaughlin and, perhaps, James Coughlan.
Mike Sherry can be disappointed too at not making the cut, although with Rory Best back on board, alongside Richardt Strauss and the in-form Sean Cronin, Kidney is not wanting for quality at hooker.
The priority has to be about strengthening the squad and widening the player base. It's good to see the inclusion of young guys, players likely to be involved against the English Saxons but who will benefit from time spent with the senior squad.
Darren Cave, Declan Fitzpatrick, Craig Gilroy, Robbie Henshaw, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Paul Marshall, David Kilcoyne, Dave McSharry and Lewis Stevenson are all promising talents who can take a big step in their development. Gilroy and Henderson will probably be in the match-day 23 for Cardiff.
Hopefully Dan Tuohy and Stephen Ferris will be back soon, but it's fair to assume that Kidney has a good idea of what his team will be in Wales.
On the positive side it's great to see Luke Fitzgerald back on board. He has some way to go to regain full match fitness, but on the evidence we've seen so far, it looks like the buzz in his game is back. This is a player only scratching the surface of the extraordinary talent that lies within.
Kidney is no fool. He knows what Fitzgerald has to offer and the qualities he can bring to the table.
In the absence of Tommy Bowe there will be a tweak on the right wing, but there could also be some chopping and changing at full-back, left wing, hooker and in the back-row.
On the basis of the win against Argentina (one of the most complete Ireland displays ever) both Gilroy and Zebo deserve to stay in the side. The logical back three would appear to be Rob Kearney at full-back with Gilroy on the right and Zebo on the left. The form of Andrew Trimble for Ulster and positive return of Fitzgerald gives Kidney a dilemma, however.
Kearney is set in stone, but the head coach could opt for either Trimble or Gilroy on the right wing and Zebo or Fitzgerald on the left. Keith Earls is another option on the wing, but I still believe the Limerick man has what it takes to hack it in the centre at the highest level.
For that reason – with Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll (fitness allowing) likely to start – I would have Earls as utility back cover for Cardiff.
Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray will be the halves, while Cian Healy (another Leinster front-row man on fire) and Mike Ross will be the props.
It highlights the quality of our hookers that despite losing a player of Jerry Flannery to premature retirement, we can still pick one from Best, Strauss and Cronin – three excellent options.
Best will probably get the nod, and although he's nowhere near as dynamic a ball carrier as the Leinster two, when you consider the balance he brings to the position, that would look to be the right call.
In the second-row, Donnacha Ryan is a shoo-in, a natural forward leader. Indeed with all the frenzy surrounding the captaincy switch from O'Driscoll to Jamie Heaslip, it should be remembered that we are blessed with several fantastic warriors.
No matter who is chosen to take the armband, when you have individuals of the quality of Best, Ryan, Sexton, O'Driscoll and Kearney alongside you, it makes the responsibility a lot easier to shoulder.
Mike McCarthy should hold on to his November position ahead of Donncha O'Callaghan, although the latter has really stepped up to the mark alongside Ryan in the absence of Paul O'Connell for Munster. O'Callaghan's work off the ball has been exceptional at a difficult time for the province.
In the back-row, as ever, the final decision is about balance.
As I see it, it's two from four, with Sean O'Brien back fit and firing. O'Brien could come in for Peter O'Mahony at blindside, making for an extremely mobile unit alongside Chris Henry and Heaslip.
That combination would allow the 'Tullow Tank' much more leeway to do what he does best in broken play.
In saying that, O'Mahony at No 6 and O'Brien at No 7 either side of Heaslip would strengthen the line-out even more, and I suspect that is what Kidney will go for.
After this weekend's high-intensity European matches, and the Saxons game at the Sportsground, all the relevant data ahead of selection will be collected and forensically analysed.
Winning in Cardiff on February 2 will make or break Ireland's season.
A victory would get us up and running; lose, and we're chasing our tail.
Rest assured, the management is aware of the ramifications. They'll leave no stone unturned in the quest to plunder the spoils.