Tony Ward: Kidney to pass judgement on irish squad's final trial
There was a time when, as those of us of a certain age recall only too well, the dreaded Final Trial represented the be-all and end-all to our international aspirations. I think I speak for most who went through that awful late December/early January Probables v Possibles ordeal when I say it was the match from hell. The one to be missed was, unfortunately, the one that couldn't be avoided. From a personal perspective, I hated it.
Now, of course, it is a different deal entirely. Declan Kidney is blessed with final trials on a weekly basis from September through to May. The official Final Trial, per se, is now a relic of times past and Amen to that. For this professional generation, every week is a final trial of sorts.
For Kidney it means being armed with the most reliable and up-to-date information regarding players' form ahead of selection.
That is as it should be. So with the preliminary squad of 44 announced for the upcoming Six Nations, including nine uncapped players, opportunity knocks this weekend for those on the fringes to state their final case for the Six Nations and associated 'A' games against England Saxons and Scotland.
As with every Kidney squad, it smacks of fairness. The immediate needs are met in terms of Italy (first up) and the 'A' games while New Zealand 2011 is clearly at the heart of the chronological process. Whatever else he might call wrong, the consummate realist will never be accused of getting ahead of himself.
The inclusion of the long-term injured Rory Best is a typical case in point. Jerry Flannery and Tomas O'Leary -- bitterly disappointed at missing out on the Lions tour to South Africa last summer -- both joined the shadow Ireland Churchill Cup-winning squad on its summer trip to the US and Canada.
It helped their rehabilitation in a relaxed but relevant working environment. The alternative might have meant sulking back in Limerick and Cork respectively. This attention to sensitive detail makes the current chief bottle washer critically different.
Even if you are out of the frame on form or lack of provincial opportunity -- think Jonathan Sexton this time last year -- Kidney provides that 'arm-around-the-shoulder encouragement'. Were he to announce the same starting XV to begin the Grand Slam defence as that which ran out against the Springboks back in November, there would be few arguments raised.
And yet there will be debate (which is in itself healthy) at loose-head, out-half, inside-centre and left-wing.
To that end, Twickenham today for Sexton, Cian Healy and Gordon D'Arcy is their Final Trial of sorts. For Shane Jennings and Sean O'Brien, the scramble as back-up to Stephen Ferris and David Wallace is well under way and don't rule rookie Kevin McLaughlin out of the back-row equation.
Were the dreaded Final Trial still being played and, on the assumption the victorious starting XV against the Springboks was returned en bloc (as white-shirted Probables), might the blues (or Possibles) look like this? Denis Hurley (Munster); Shane Horgan (Leinster), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster), Andrew Trimble (Ulster); Ronan O'Gara (Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster); Marcus Horan (Munster), Sean Cronin (Connacht), Tony Buckley (Munster); Leo Cullen (Leinster), Mick O'Driscoll (Munster); Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Shane Jennings (Leinster) and Chris Henry (Ulster)?
Needless to say, most interest will focus on the race for No 10 but Kidney will earn his corn in the coming days as Horgan, D'Arcy, Trimble, and O'Gara have racked up the pressure in recent weeks, while the case for Horan, if deemed match fit, is considerable.
It all adds to the mix on this massive weekend for Irish rugby. One in which European interest for all four provinces could extend to April for the very first time and that, for Kidney, is a pretty good place to be.
London Irish coach Toby Booth -- one whose modus operandi I admire greatly -- has been a little mischievous ahead of the Twickenham showdown when describing today's match official Nigel Owens as 'Leinster's lucky charm'.
No doubt he will defend it as a comment made in jest but the intended knock-on is to point attention in the direction of the referee, thereby adding to the on-field pressure. It is something Owens and the game could well do without and, while nowhere near the gravity of Brendan Venter's post-match rant at Vicarage Road, is, despite the funny edge, bordering on bringing the game into disrepute.
Maybe it is only me but I do detect a narrowing in the gap between those running the soccer asylum and rugby's equivalent, certainly when it comes to pre- and post-match coaching/management comments.
The English Rugby authorities (RFU) showed leniency towards Venter in light of his attack on Premiership referee David Rose by way of a four-week suspended sentence.
He was, however, found guilty of conduct which was "prejudicial to the interests of the game". Whither Booth's comments now?
Where he is right is in his assessment is that the Exiles, wounded in the valleys, might never be more dangerous. Certainly, when they hit top gear they are one of the most exciting teams anywhere to watch. However, they can be brittle and, as the Scarlets proved, are there to be brought down. Provided they weather the early storm, Leinster have it within their power to beat London Irish at their own vibrant and entertaining brand of all-embracing rugby.
Take Leinster in what could be a Heineken Cup humdinger.