Opportunity knocks as Wolfhounds get chance to bare teeth
Schmidt keeps his options open ahead of Italy clash
SO THE Super Bowl isn't the only game between two teams with silly names packed with superstars this weekend after all.
Rarely, if ever, has a clash between Ireland and England's second string had so much star power and it means the Six Nations buzz should start a week early in Cork tonight.
There may be little on the line for the result, but both teams are packed with players with plenty on the line.
As an opening night for the refurbished Irish Independent Park, it's quite a cast of characters and the Irish team is full of interesting selections with the Six Nations in mind. Indeed, in a different scenario this could well be a Test starting XV with 324 caps between them and Jack Conan the only uncapped player.
The Saxons are less experienced but pack plenty of firepower into their match-day 23, with the star attraction undoubtedly rugby league convert Sam Burgess who wears the No 12 shirt and partners Wasps' Elliot Daly in the centre.
The most notable Irish inclusion is that of Sean O'Brien, who returns to action after his long spell on the sidelines after two shoulder reconstructions. Leinster and Ireland have missed him even if the show has remained on the road and a period of good health will benefit all parties.
With Chris Henry and Rhys Ruddock sidelined, the importance of getting the Tullow Tank back on the pitch has grown even if Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy being kept in cotton wool appears significant.
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Rome may come a week too early for O'Brien, but there are plenty of others with Italy on their mind and Joe Schmidt's selection in tandem with Dan McFarland and Richie Murphy is fascinating.
The presence of Luke Fitzgerald on the wing is one example of a pick that will raise eyebrows after the Leinster flyer's recent form in the centre, while Keith Earls' first appearance in green since the New Zealander took over comes at outside centre which is another talking point.
With Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe the incumbents for the wing positions, there are plenty of options for the Nos 11, 14 and 23 shirts with tonight's captain Felix Jones and winger Fergus McFadden also in the running along with Jared Payne whose omission was mysteriously brushed over at yesterday's team announcement.
Then there is Ian Madigan's selection in the outside position where he partners Kieran Marmion and has a chance to stake his claim to start in Johnny Sexton's absence next week.
Schmidt says the berth remains unclaimed, but one suspects a strong display from the man who has played at inside centre for Leinster this season could swing the decision in his favour. His rival, Ian Keatley, will train with the rest of the squad at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon.
Gordon D'Arcy and Mike Ross find themselves in the unfamiliar surrounds of the second string due to a need for game time after missing out on the Leinster team to face Castres and Wasps in recent weeks.
International stalwarts they may be, but the elder statesmen must show something tonight to force their way into the equation for the big show.
McFarland is coach on the night, but there is a ticking clock on some of his participants and when Schmidt calls time on his frontliners' night it will be time to get them off the pitch.
"That's more or less how it works because although I'm the head coach, the preparation for the Wolfhounds week is very much about providing a platform for the players to be able to launch into the Six Nations," the Connacht forwards coach conceded.
"While the game in itself is clearly important based on the quality put out on the field, there's also a need to ensure that the players get enough game time going into the Six Nations, as is the same with selection."
This fixture maybe a leftover from the old days when 'A' games were part of the Six Nations schedule, but McFarland is a fan of the concept and sees opportunity for his squad.
"I love to see competitive rugby, I love to see players who are ambitious and who are on the edge of doing something great being given a chance that's just a very small step away from where they want to be and being given a chance to put their hands up. I love that," he said. "I think the Wolfhounds games certainly give you that."
Coached by former England full-back Jon Callard, the Saxons will certainly present a strong test for the Irish side, even if they haven't quite got the same level of household names.
What they do have is pace, with Chris Ashton and Marlan Yarde on the wings and Exeter's Henry Slade at out-half and Christian Wade on the bench.
With Stuart Lancaster still to solve his midfield issues ahead of England's Six Nations opener in Cardiff in a week's time, all eyes will be on Bath's Burgess who has yet to make a big impact during his short spell in the new code. "Sam Burgess is less than 60 days into his rugby union career and there's more been talked about him than some of the top players in the England team. He's a massive player," McFarland said.
"The threats that they have are everywhere, they've a coaching team who coached them last year, they'll have prepared well.
"Jon Callard plays a good brand of rugby so it's a great opportunity for our fellas to test ourselves against a strong opposition."
With both coaches admitting that these are two of the strongest 'A' sides ever selected by the respective nations, it should be a cracker.
"With people likely to be involved in Ireland's senior team the following week it's always a tough game," Callard said.
"Traditionally this was the game they would treat as their final trial, and there's an element of that with guys coming back from injury and aiming to prove their fitness."
The result may not be too important even if Irish players have never turned their nose up at beating English teams, but with so much on the line individually it's crucial that Ireland show some cohesion.
Their side is packed with experience and ability and, while it won't be easy, they should have enough to come through.
Verdict: Ireland Wolfhounds