Return of Final Trial would be clash to savour
My Probables v Possibles line-ups showcase depth of talent in Ireland
Turn back the clock, and this was the time of year players of the pre-professional era really dreaded. Far from turkey and stuffing, brussels sprouts, mince pies and brandy butter, Christmas was all about the Final Trial -- the dreaded Final Trial.
The Probables would face the Possibles at Lansdowne Road, when seven men (five full selectors, usually two from Ulster, two from Leinster one from Munster, plus two sub-selectors, one from Munster and one from Connacht) came together, combined their rugby-playing knowledge -- with political conniving top of the agenda -- to piece together the Ireland team for the opening Five Nations international then scheduled for late January.
Today's generation have it better in every way. Quite apart from rugby being their daily bread (would I swap places if I could -- yes, yes and yes again), the dreaded Final Trial has long been consigned to history.
But what if it still existed? What if instead of Joe Schmidt, we still had the 'Big Five'? On the basis of form in the latter stages of 2013, particularly in the Autumn Series, who might today's power-brokers be considering as Ireland Wolfhounds or Blues (Possibles)?
For the sake of argument, let us assume that the side that almost created history when they came within seconds of beating the All Blacks will be fit and firing on all cylinders to face Scotland at the Aviva first up.
That would make for a Whites or Probables line-up as follows:
15 R Kearney (Leinster); 14 T Bowe (Ulster), 13 B O'Driscoll (Leinster), 12 G D'Arcy (Leinster), 11 D Kearney (Leinster); 10 J Sexton (Racing Metro), 9 C Murray (Munster); 1 C Healy (Leinster), 2 R Best (Ulster), 3 M Ross (Leinster); 4 D Toner (Leinster), 5 P O'Connell (capt), (Munster); 6 P O'Mahony (Munster), 7 S O'Brien (Leinster); 8 J Heaslip (Leinster).
I would go along with that on the basis of an Irish team doing everything asked of them against the reigning world champions -- bar winning, of course.
Not necessarily the team to start against the Scots, but certainly the one in pole position to take on the Possibles ahead of that selection.
That's the easy part. Now in the stated, if obvious, quest for two players competing in every position, where to now for the shadow XV?
Let's go at it in the same order as above, starting at full-back.
There are alternatives, but right now perish the thought of anything untoward befalling Rob Kearney. Once Ulster's Jared Payne qualifies through residency later in 2014, he will surely come into the frame.
Felix Jones is the Munster incumbent, while Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney all offer potential back-up in an emergency, but at this point in time it would need to be just that -- an emergency.
He is barely a year and a bit out of school, but having already replaced Gavin Duffy as first-choice No 15 in Connacht, ROBBIE HENSHAW would be the full-back-in-waiting for me.
I accept that he also offers possibility in the centre, but he's developing into a real presence at full-back -- particularly for one so young.
That development should be allowed to continue uninterrupted.
On the wing, there are permutations to beat the band. On the right, Keith Earls and Craig Gilroy offer the best options, while on the opposite flank Zebo and Fitzgerald are the most naturally left-sided, while Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden are equally at home on either wing. Gilroy, too, is capable of alternating. I would go with KEITH EARLS on the right and SIMON ZEBO on the left, but with LUKE FITZGERALD wearing the No 13 shirt as main challenger to Brian O'Driscoll.
Darren Cave, despite his clear and obvious frustration (which must be channelled into playing, not talking) is the obvious rival, although McFadden or Earls can also shift inside if need be.
At inside-centre, Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall look set to continue their provincial rivalry a level up. James Downey still offers a specific role if required, but as of now LUKE MARSHALL is the one.
At out-half, four names figure. Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan can concentrate on that particular battle down south, leaving Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson to continue their growing rivalry for the inside track behind Sexton.
It's a difficult one to call because, on form, Jackson is growing into the type of game-manager central to the modern demand. There's nothing in it, but if Madigan can win his own internal battle with Jimmy Gopperth and get the relevant game-time with Leinster, I'm going with IAN MADIGAN.
At scrum-half, take EOIN REDDAN, Isaac Boss and Paul Marshall in that order, but watch for Kieran Marmion who, based on current form, warrants a place on the combined bench at the very least.
And a bit like your local bus (where is it when you need it?) for years not a prop in sight -- now, they're all over the place.
Take your pick from Jack McGrath, David Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Tom Court, Martin Moore, Declan Fitzpatrick and Stephen Archer.
With Richardt Strauss still out (but on the mend) and so too Mike Sherry, it's SEAN CRONIN at hooker with JACK McGRATH and DECLAN FITZPATRICK either side. The much-underrated Damien Varley deservedly takes his place on the bench.
In the boiler house, I'll run with MIKE McCARTHY and DONNACHA RYAN ahead of the Ulster duo of Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy.
The back-row can be mixed and matched, but I'll start with a trio of TOMMY O'DONNELL, CHRIS HENRY and another hugely underrated forward in ROGER WILSON. After that it's Kevin McLaughlin, John Muldoon, Rhys Ruddock and Eoin McKeon and James Coughlan, with no particular numbers attached.
Put it all together and the Blues or Possibles would read:
15 R Henshaw (Connacht); 14 K Earls (Munster), 13 L Fitzgerald (Leinster), 12 L Marshall (Ulster), 11 S Zebo (Munster); 10 I Madigan (Leinster), 9 E Reddan (Leinster); 1 J McGrath (Leinster), 2 S Cronin (Leinster), 3 D Fitzpatrick (Ulster); 4 M McCarthy (Leinster), 5 D Ryan, Captain, (Munster); 6 T O'Donnell (Munster), 7 C Henry (Ulster), 8 R Wilson (Ulster). Reps: D Kilcoyne (Munster), M Moore (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), S Archer (Munster), D Varley (Munster), D Tuohy (Ulster), I Henderson (Ulster), R Ruddock (Leinster), K McLaughlin (Leinster), J Muldoon (Connacht), E McKeon (Connacht), K Marmion (Connacht), P Jackson (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster), D Cave (Ulster), S Olding (Ulster), A Trimble (Ulster).
Of course, it won't happen -- but it could make for some match.
Blues' unsung hero Breen a hard act to follow
The role of the media officer or PRO has become central to the modern game. He is the go between, the buffer, the brick wall, the 'can't be done' man, all of those things rolled into one. Love them or hate them, they are a central part to the professional fabric.
Personalities vary, but broadly speaking, there are two main types. Those who impose themselves, consistently leaving little doubt in the minds of the media as to who calls the shots, and then there are those who work quietly and efficiently in the background but when the heat comes on, lay down the parameters every bit as effectively.
On Tuesday last the epitome of that latter category, and my type of media man, left his position after a decade at the helm with Leinster.
Peter Breen is one of the unsung heroes of the game's transition from amateur to professional.
Leinster's loss is unquestionably the DSPCA's gain. He is going to be a very difficult act to follow.
Of course, life moves on and someone else will take control but I'm not so sure Donnybrook, the RDS or the new complex at Clonskeagh will be quite the same again minus the consummate PR gentleman.