Crunch time for hopefuls in bid to catch Schmidt eye
THE Irish Wolfhounds will share a common cause as they head for Gloucester today ahead of tomorrow's meeting with the England Saxons.
Coach Anthony Foley insisted that his side would be targeting a win, emphasising that that is what "it's all about" – but nobody remembers the result of 'A' internationals, only who played well.
Of course, the squad themselves must set aside the individual for the collective in order to perform well, but with Joe Schmidt set to whittle down his squad in the aftermath of this game, there are places up for grabs.
It is a marker of the health of the Ireland playing pool and the depth available that Foley is able to field such a strong team for this clash, with all but six of the 23 holding senior caps.
Those with the most to gain appear to be Fergus McFadden, Martin Moore, Iain Henderson, Tommy O'Donnell and Robin Copeland, who can provide ballast at the back of the scrum.
McFadden hasn't played since breaking his hand against Australia in November, but he was arguably Ireland's best back in the autumn and was named ahead of Craig Gilroy – who occupies the other wing – and Simon Zebo – named on the bench – in Schmidt's original squad.
With Keith Earls (knee) set to miss the Six Nations and Tommy Bowe still out, there is a scramble to fill the wing positions and a strong McFadden showing will put him in the mix.
O'Donnell is in a battle with Chris Henry for the No 7 shirt left vacant by Sean O'Brien and is starting to find peak form after missing a large chunk of the early season with injury.
Moore has broken into the first team this season and could be elevated to Mike Ross' international back-up with a strong showing, while Henderson gets a chance to show his versatility with a start at second-row.
The versatile 21-year-old can play at blindside as well and has, according to assistant coach Neil Doak, been impressive at training.
"He's a force carrying the ball and he's played well at training this week in some broken-field scenarios," the former Ulster scrum-half said.
"He'll be a hard guy to bring down if he gets into that broken field with ball in hand."
Ian Madigan will hope to have an impact after being left on the bench by Leinster in their last two Heineken Cup games, while Kieran Marmion takes his place in the replacements after escaping a ban, despite his citing for striking being upheld yesterday.
Damien Varley suffered a concussion in Munster's win over Edinburgh on Sunday and has not recovered sufficiently, so Richardt Strauss is on the bench as his remarkable return continues.
ENGLAND SAXONS – E Daly (Wasps); A Watson (Bath), M Hopper (Harlequins), S Hill (Exeter Chiefs), C Sharples (Gloucester); F Burns (Gloucester) J Simpson (Wasps); A Waller (Northampton Saints), J George (Saracens), T Mercey (Northampton Saints), C Matthews (Harlequins), G Kruis (Saracens) C Clark (capt, Northampton Saints), L Wallace (Harlequins), D Ewers (Exeter Chiefs). Reps: D Ward (Harlequins), N Catt (Bath), S Wilson (Newcastle Falcons), E Stooke (Gloucester), S Dickinson (Northampton Saints), D Lewis (Exeter Chiefs), H Slade (Exeter Chiefs), R Miller (Sale Sharks)
IRELAND WOLFHOUNDS – F McFadden (Leinster); R Henshaw (Connacht), D Cave (Ulster), C Gilroy (Ulster); I Madigan (Leinster), I Boss (Leinster); D Kilcoyne (Munster), R Herring (Ulster), M Moore (Leinster); I Henderson (Ulster), D Tuohy (Ulster); R Ruddock (capt, Leinster), T O'Donnell (Munster), R Copeland (Cardiff Blues). Reps: R Strauss (Leinster), J McGrath (Leinster), S Archer (Munster), R Diack (Ulster), J Murphy (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), I Keatley (Munster), S Zebo (Munster).