Final audition for senior run

Saxons showdown offers fringe players a chance to stake claim for Six Nations

Des Berry

The positioning of the 'A' International between the Churchill Cup champions Ireland and the vanquished England Saxons will have all the salt and pepper ingredients for a valuable, spicy exercise.

On a collective level, the Irish will want to show their destruction of the Saxons was no fluke in Denver, Colorado, last June.

Their opponents will be out to settle a not-so-old score. These are reasons enough to expect a hot contest.

More importantly, it will allow those skirting around the edges of the full international arena one last chance to make their play for the Six Nations Championship.

There are those who can legitimately lay claim to an involvement because of improving form and/or those that could be called on due to Ireland's scarce resources in one or two positions of shallow depth in quality.

There was a time when Ronan O'Gara and John Hayes were seen as the two most protected species in Irish rugby, such was the dearth of back-up in their respective positions in the team.

Then, along came Leinster's Jonathan Sexton to wipe away the fear that attended every O'Gara slip to the ground or fall in form in the red of Munster or green of Ireland.

Sadly, the same can't be said of the talent beneath the surface at tighthead prop -- even more so when considering how Hayes struggled to cope with Northampton's Soane Tonga'uiha last Friday.

The simple fact is that Hayes, 36, is coming to the end of a staggering career in which he is Ireland's record cap holder (97). Leinster's Mike Ross stands out as the one man capable of providing stability in the position at scrum time.

Ross left these shores in 2006 to pursue life in the Premiership with Harlequins, where he was moulded into a first-class set-piece tighthead, a renowned scrummager and worker in the position.

He has been hampered by Leinster's relatively abundant choice in the front-row, where Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde -- also capable as scrum cornerstones -- bring the bonus of superior skills. He needs time in the number three jersey.

The regard with which Michael Cheika holds Leinster's vice-captain can be gauged from how, following a 12-week suspension from the game, he was immediately returned to the European champions' first team ahead of Sean O'Brien.

Like Geordan Murphy, Jennings, 29, was possibly rated higher by his coaches at Leicester Tigers during his two years there than he has been by successive Ireland coaches in Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney.

Jennings is a super-talented, natural openside, despite playing at number eight as a schoolboy, who should have accumulated many more than five Ireland caps for a player with his attributes.

He offers a totally different style of player to David Wallace as a groundhog and link man, similar to his club predecessor, Keith Gleeson. He is also a more natural leader.

Apparently, the rumours are soon to be replaced by the announcement that Ulster's Isaac Boss will move to Leinster at the end of this season.

It is difficult to see how Leinster's new head coach, Josef Schmidt, will juggle the number nine jersey between Boss and the incumbent, Eoin Reddan. It hasn't worked at Munster where Tomas O'Leary is clearly the first choice; Peter Stringer second.

Boss, 29, must have decided to take the high road south to hitch his wagon to a club intent on, and capable of, winning trophies, and where he will have to wrest the jersey from Reddan.

The New Zealander is in fine form this season, providing the spark for Ian Humphreys and the outside backs. He is another version of O'Leary, a strongman around the sides of the ruck with a cutting break.

For all the wonderful things Ian Humphreys can do with the oval ball, he remains an unreliable link in the chain of defence, a worse tackler than O'Gara.

At 28 years of age, he is not likely to improve too much in this area. He simply does not have the body strength to make it at the highest level. The very same weakness for contact is what gives Leinster's Sexton an edge on O'Gara.

Thus, it came as no surprise to hear Ireland manager Paul McNaughton speak of how he wanted to see Wallace at out-half, as more versatile back-up to either Sexton or O'Gara.

The return to peak form of Gordon D'Arcy at Leinster has always been bad news for Wallace, who has generally benefitted when the Wexfordman has been short of his best.

This is not to ignore the serious footballing intelligence, the subtle handling and the improved physicality of Wallace -- another Ulsterman playing out of his skin at the moment.

You couldn't quite grumble if former Irish Youths international Sean O'Brien, twice-capped by Ireland in November, felt a little unloved at his home province.

The Tullow carrier is a dambuster of defences. He can steamroll players in a most un-Irish way, trampling all over their best intentions before accelerating away like a mad bull.

It is the details of the openside position that he has yet to master, the experience of knowing what to do and where to be when all he wants to do is roll up his sleeves and get stuck in.

The 22-year-old has shown the patience, at least publicly, to learn his profession and wait his turn. In the meantime, he can learn from Jennings at Leinster.