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Kidney must follow his gut instinct and unleash Zebo

Barring a conversion of Damascan proportions, a sensational Wolfhounds performance or a spate of injuries, it is unlikely Declan Kidney will dip beyond his already chosen few for his XV to face the Welsh tomorrow week.

Even in the absence of Brian O'Driscoll, it is a squad good enough to reverse the disappointingly lacklustre defeat in New Zealand back in October.

The big issue surrounds the choice of outside-centre, the second-row partner for new skipper Paul O'Connell and, as ever, the No 10.

I reckon the two players in the training squad who will miss out on the match-day 22 will be James Coughlan (called in as cover for Leo Cullen, whose inclusion I cannot comprehend, given the imminence of his operation) and Ulster centre Paddy Wallace.

But for now, attention focuses on Sandy Park in Exeter and a Wolfhounds squad which includes nine uncapped players.

It is an 'A' team panel picked on form and potential, blending experience with youth. My only real gripe is the absence of Ulster scrum-half dynamo Paul Marshall.

I can understood the exclusion of Fionn Carr, as David Kearney has done so much right and so little wrong as a stand-in wing, and deserves his call-up.

I still believe that, as with his older brother Rob, his best position is full-back, and I believe he is a substantial alternative at No 15 for Leinster and Ireland going forward.

Kearney faces a tough test alongside Gavin Duffy and Simon Zebo against an English back three of Delon Armitage, Ugo Monye and Matt Banahan, who have been picked to wreak havoc through pace and power.

Along with Isaac Boss, Duffy brings the key component of experience to the Wolfhounds backline.

Duffy, John Muldoon and Mike McCarthy have provided consistency and direction for Connacht in Europe. McCarthy and Dan Tuohy will team up in the boilerhouse at a time of change in the senior second-row pecking order.

And opportunity knocks for skipper Chris Henry at a time when much is being made of the requirement to invent a roaming Irish No 7, a la Sam Warburton. While I acknowledge the benefit of a free-ranging openside -- Keith Gleeson was the last to fit that bill -- it is not a crying need, given the scrapping ability the Ireland centres have at the breakdown.

When O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy were at the peak of their powers, their work at the tackle area effectively saw off the need for a groundhog No 7 and finished off Gleeson's Test career ahead of its time.

If whoever fills in for O'Driscoll at No 13 in the Six Nations can replicate that work, then the foraging No 7 is still not a requirement.

Equally, I do not share the view that Sean O'Brien lacks the pace to compete with the Warburtons and Thierry Dusautoirs of this world in open play. Certainly the next fortnight will tell a tale in that regard.

O'Brien is an innate footballer with that God-given facility to sniff out ball and the most accessible route to it.

Wasn't it only a short while ago we had some 'experts' arguing for his conversion to the front-row?

Warburton is a special talent, but if there is a better back-row unit operating in world rugby than Stephen Ferris, O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip then I don't know it.

Elsewhere, Kidney will be particularly keen for certain players to put their hands up tonight and stake claims for senior involvement: tight-head Stephen Archer, second-rows McCarthy and Tuohy, No 8 Rhys Ruddock, out-half Ian Keatley, centres Nevin Spence and Eoin O'Malley, and, especially, left wing Zebo.

If ever a player has grabbed his opportunity and captured the imagination of the nation it is Zebo.

What immediately impressed me in the Pro12 was his ability to break the gain-line almost every time he touches the ball. His hat-trick against Northampton confirmed the finishing ability insiders knew he had.

He has that go-forward momentum and off-camera work ethic you cannot buy. It's early days, I know, but the 21-year-old Cork Con flyer looks the real deal.

He has temperament allied to attitude and, if he maintains his current rate of progress, then promotion to the senior squad ought be a no-brainer.

Kidney has gone with gut instinct in the past and I urge him to do so again should Zebo shine with the Wolfhounds.

Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble get the nod on the wings to face Wales. Trimble has done more than enough to reclaim that left sided slot from Keith Earls, leaving the latter to contest the vacant No 13 jersey.

But another Zebo tour de force tonight and he could be right in contention for the France game if the incumbents are off-colour against Wales. His performance against Northampton convinced me he is ready.

Despite the disappointingly conservative aspect to Kidney's Six Nations squad, this is a highly experienced, highly talented, highly decorated group of players well capable of going the distance again.

I find it astonishing the odds on an outright Irish title (as distinct from a Grand Slam) are so generous.

Even with England and France away, prices ranging from 11/2 to 13/2 look extremely kind.

Despite the loss of the talismanic O'Driscoll, I still think we are well worth a flutter. As ever, much will depend on the opening game and the search for that all-important early momentum.

Beat Wales and it's all to play for in Paris six days on. Lose, and those odds could be well justified.

Put simply, no one -- including World Cup runners-up France -- knows what to expect of themselves over the next six or so weeks.

If you fancy a flutter, think green because, whatever else, the main man has picked a hardened squad full of players who know how to win at this level.

Irish Independent