Kidney to run rule over fringe players
WITH memories of Ireland's epic derailment of England's Grand Slam hopes still burning brightly, the focus switches back to the Magners League this week, with all four provinces in rude health heading into the final stretch.
Munster, Leinster and Ulster occupy three of the four semi-final positions along with the second-placed Ospreys, while Connacht are well on track to finish off the foot of the table for the first time since the 2006/07 season, when the now defunct Scottish Borders propped up the league.
Many of the front-line Irish players are not expected to return to action until the Magners League matches on the weekend of April 1-3, which include Leinster's trip to Munster and is a week before the Heineken and Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
With up to 10 provincial matches remaining for most of the Irish players before the World Cup (seven in the Magners League, including semi-finals and finals, and three European games), as well as August Tests against Scotland, France (twice) and England, there is still time for fringe players to impress Declan Kidney before he finalises his options for the trip to New Zealand.
Over the course of the Six Nations campaign, Leinster and Munster won three of their four matches, while Ulster and Connacht won four from five.
Munster also saw 2009 Grand Slam-winning props John Hayes and Marcus Horan returning to action for the 'A' side, though the luckless Jerry Flannery continues to struggle with his calf, while Tomas O'Leary's eye injury rules him out of this weekend's trip to Cardiff.
In Ulster, Ruan Pienaar has been quietly proving that the substantial outlay for his services has been worthwhile with two match-winning kicks, and he also provided the steady hand as Ulster threw Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson into a youthful backline in their last outing, a 25-23 win over the Dragons at Ravenhill.
Stephen Ferris is edging back towards fitness, but may not feature before the Heineken Cup quarter-final clash away to Northampton next month. Paddy Wallace is more likely to feature this weekend after seeing just 14 minutes of action during the Six Nations, despite making the matchday 22 for all five games.
"Stephen is running again. Hopefully, he will be available for the game against Northampton at least. He is making good progress," said Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin.
John Muldoon is likely to return to action this weekend as Connacht head to Italy for the second of their back-to-back clashes with Aironi.
Muldoon has struggled with a broken arm since Ireland's summer tour and has yet to feature in 2011.
He was named on the bench for Connacht's 11-5 win over Aironi earlier this month but did not feature as Eric Elwood's side, with only Sean Cronin away on international duty, put together a fine run of form during the Six Nations that included wins over the Scarlets, Glasgow and both Italian sides.
Others Ireland player like Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy are also heading towards match fitness after knee and ankle injuries respectively, while Andrew Trimble offered a timely reminder of what he can offer against England.
Should everyone stay injury-free, Kidney will have some very interesting calls to make before handing out the plane tickets to New Zealand.