Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 February 2018

Hopefuls ready to put their hands up

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE 'Saxons v Wolfhounds' title might be hard to take seriously but, despite the fact that it's the battle of the silly names, this evening's meeting at Sandy Park is deadly serious for those involved.

A combination of England's bad boys and young guns against Ireland's up-and-comers and nearly-theres will make for interesting viewing, even if the combinations are sure to be raw and the weather in Devon due to be wet, windy and cold.

Gone are the days when 'A' internationals kicked off proceedings on a Five Nations weekend, but perhaps the scheduling of this match means that it is more significant than ever, with places in the senior squad to be earned for this year's instalment of the Six Nations.

The team to play Wales may be close to being set in stone with Declan Kidney standing by his World Cup stalwarts but, with injury inevitable, those turning out today will be hoping to put their hands up for selection.

With English rugby still in flux after a host of big-name retirements and Stuart Lancaster taking an axe to the senior squad, the Saxons will be up for this clash simply because there is nothing concrete in the pecking order.

The need to impress can lead to players forcing their hands, playing as individuals and looking disjointed. With Delon Armitage, Ugo Monye and Matt Banahan in the backline and Thomas Waldrom in the pack, the English line-up looks like it has plenty of gas but also a plethora of players who aren't renowned for their team-playing ability.

Meanwhile, Irish rugby is in a strange place in the aftermath of a confusing World Cup. The glow of the Australia win has faded and the reality of the opportunity lost against Wales in Wellington is now in sharp focus. That has been tempered by the Heineken Cup performances of Ulster, Leinster and Munster but by refusing to freshen up his squad, Kidney has side-stepped that momentum to a degree.

There are some interesting calls in this Wolfhounds squad -- coach Eric Elwood knows everything he's ever going to know about the likes of Gavin Duffy, Isaac Boss, Brett Wilkinson, captain Chris Henry and John Muldoon.

But their experience will help the likes of Devin Toner, Eoin O'Malley, Nevin Spence, Simon Zebo, Ian Keatley and Rhys Ruddock lay down a marker.

Zebo, in particular, is looking like the most exciting prospect in the Irish game right now with his pure pace, athleticism and finishing ability -- not to mention the Cork Constitution wing's ability to win back ball from kick-offs -- making him the toast of Thomond Park. If the 21-year-old carries the momentum gained from his hat-trick at Milton Keynes into this game against Monye, then he could force his way into the senior reckoning.

Along with Henry and Muldoon, Ruddock will be hoping for a big game after James Coughlan was called into the senior squad ahead of him and, after limited opportunities at Leinster, the former Wales underage international could do with a performance.

Stephen Archer gets a big chance after a frustrating season at Munster and he goes up against the former Trinity prop Paul Doran-Jones, a full England international, in what will be an interesting battle up front.

Saxons coach Jon Callard wants his team to play with "no fear" and Elwood will be hoping for the same. Ian Keatley will want to get the ball to his centres who lack size, but whose fleet-footedness can cause the bigger English backs problems.

But this game will be won up front, where the highly rated James Gaskell leads the English effort from the blindside and the likes of Waldrom will be asked to carry the game to Ireland.

Andy Saull's ability on the ground could hurt an Irish back-row with no recognised openside, but in Mike McCarthy, Muldoon and Ruddock, there's plenty of ball-carrying threat.

With the likes of Ian Madigan, Toner, Tomas O'Leary and Denis Hurley ready to come on from the bench, the visitors might just have the depth to get them through this battle. Whether they do enough to impress the men in charge is another matter.

Verdict: Ireland Wolfhounds

ENGLAND SAXONS -- D Armitage (London Irish); U Monye (Harlequins), M Hopper (Harlequins), B Twelvetrees (Leicester Tigers), Matt Banahan (Bath); F Burns (Gloucester), B Spencer (Saracens); M Mullan (Worcester Warriors), J Gray (Harlequins), P Doran-Jones (Northampton Saints); M Garvey (London Irish), G Robson (Harlequins); J Gaskell (Sale Sharks), A Saull (Saracens), T Waldrom (Leicester Tigers). Reps: C Brooker (Harlequins), R Harden (Gloucester), K Myall (Sale Sharks), T Johnson (Exeter Chiefs), P Hodgson (London Irish), R Lamb (Northampton Saints), J May (Gloucester).

IRELAND WOLFHOUNDS -- G Duffy (Connacht); D Kearney (Leinster), E O'Malley (Leinster), N Spence (Ulster), S Zebo (Munster); I Keatley (Munster), I Boss (Leinster); B Wilkinson (Connacht), D Varley (Munster), S Archer (Munster); D Tuohy (Ulster), M McCarthy (Connacht); J Muldoon (Connacht), C Henry (Ulster, capt), R Ruddock (Leinster). Reps: M Sherry (Munster), R Loughney (Connacht), D Toner (Leinster), K McLaughlin (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster), I Madigan (Leinster), D Hurley (Munster).

England Saxons v Ireland Wolfhounds,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 5.0

Irish Independent

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