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Plenty of top talent to fill the Irish ranks

Ireland coach Declan Kidney is making his pre-Six Nations moves from a position of strength for which each of the other five coaches would donate a limb.

As it stands, there are three legitimate challengers for Ireland's Six Nations championship -- the unpredictable French, the power-based English and the ambitious Welsh.

Typically, Kidney pulled another rabbit from the hat by nominating Leinster's Kevin McLaughlin to replace the injured Stephen Ferris as one of four changes from the side that scalped South Africa 15-10 in November.

The Ireland coach could have reverted to the tried and tested Alan Quinlan when Ferris faltered. But he chose, instead, to reward McLaughlin for his consistency for Leinster this season. He clearly has one eye on the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011.



PROMOTION

Thus, Kidney, on the promotion of McLaughlin, said: "Kevin, to me, fought his way. He said he wanted to get a certain number of games (for Leinster). He did that. He acquitted himself really well.

"We felt he was going well in November. In December and January, he backed that up. He has played consistently with one of the better teams in Europe. We want him to do no more or no less than what he has been doing for Leinster."

Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll added: "Kev has been very consistent. He's been a big impact player for us, has carried well and has a high work rate. He does the simple things you ask of your blindside flanker.

"People were waxing lyrical about Rocky (Elsom) last year and he was great for us. People wanted to know how we were going to replace him. Well, I think Kevin has done a fairly good job of that and the change has been fairly seamless."

Certainly, the Ireland management and senior players are singing from the same hymn sheet about the first cap for the 'choir singer'. There is a sense that they are all moving in the same direction.

As usual, the greatest threat to Ireland's crown comes from the unpredictable French, who can be incomparably brilliant and outrageously bad all in the space of time it takes to smoke a Gauloise.

Coach Marc Lievremont, capped 25 times by his country, was a nomadic player, moving through Perpignan, Stade Francais and Biarritz, in a career of infinite possibilities.

Ultimately, he remained better known in his own country than he was in the rest of Europe. He threatened more than he delivered. Is he bringing the same inconsistency as a coach?

Lievremont retired from playing in 2005 to make an immediate impact as a coach by winning promotion for Dax to the French Top-14 Championship.

Since then, he has succeeded the incredibly odd Bernard Laporte at the conclusion of the 2007 World Cup. He wants a return to the days of French flair. So far, he has overseen just 11 victories in 21 matches.

This is, in part, explained by his over generous award of caps to any professional who could lace a boot in France. He pleaded for patience as he sifted through an endless parade of players.

At this point, he should have settled on the spine of his side. He has not. Admittedly, he has taken the sensible option of replacing Lionel Nallet with the remarkable Thierry Dusautoir as his captain.

But what can one moment look like a rudderless shambles can be instantaneously transformed into magnetic, magical and mesmerising movements.

It is best to prepare for the France that stunned New Zealand in Dunedin last June as opposed to the France that buckled beneath the vengeful All Blacks in Marseilles last November.



struggled

England coach Martin Johnson has come under the microscope of the media hordes across the Irish Sea. He has struggled to survive, never mind thrive. It is his legendary status as a player that is keeping his head above water.

Now, Lawrence Dallaglio has weighed in with his tuppence worth. The other former England captain hasn't pulled his punches, heaping further pressure onto Johnson's broad shoulders.

"Martin is a very loyal person. That loyalty needs to come back the other way with a good set of results," issued Dallaglio.

"In the face of a lot of criticism, he has stuck by his coaching team. He has also stuck by a number of players. As early as this is in his coaching career, this is a defining moment," said Dallaglio.

The success or failure of England is likely to swing on their opening day joust with Wales at Twickenham. If they can stamp out the fire of The Dragon, they will be set fair for a shot at the title.

The rehabilitation, physical and mental, of Jonny Wilkinson will feed their obsession with forward domination -- there is nothing subtle about the likes of Lewis Moody and Nick Easter. He will put them in the right areas of the field to crank up the pressure.

There are signs of a departure in the game plan with the return of Mathew Tait to outside centre in what looks like a tasty partnership, in attack, with Riki Flutey.

Warren Gatland has delved back into his store of incendiary comments to attempt to shift the spotlight on Ireland, declaring "as defending champions there is pressure on Ireland".

There has been so much made of Gatland's British and Irish Lions front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones, a unit that has not in previous incarnations blown England out of the water.

The most influential aspect of Wales' preparations is surely the injured absence of Mike Phillips and, to a lesser extent, Dwayne Peel.

It leaves a gulf in class back to their third-choice Gareth Cooper, admittedly no mean performer on his day.

Just like England, Wales cannot think of anything past Twickenham on Saturday.

If they can come away with a win, like they did in 2008, it will give them the momentum Kidney continually talks about, something Ireland should take out of day one at home to Italy.


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