Cullen has chance to give Kidney a French dilemma
Whether by accident or design, Declan Kidney has been given the chance to further develop his carefully expanding squad. The side that will run on today is not the one he would have chosen if given a full hand to play with.
I suspect that if Ireland were playing France today and not Italy, there might have been one or two wounded warriors pressed into action. But that is the key to smart coaching: weighing up all the permutations and picking accordingly. The trick is in having the players -- all the players -- onside.
Kidney's said this week: "You learn in this job never to make a decision until you have to. The challenge for me is to deal with the players as best I can and let them know where they stand. Once they know that, that's all that matters."
And that encapsulates for me what he is all about, and what this unprecedented era of success is all about. The shabby treatment of players by that so-called democratic band of seven selectors in times gone by had to be experienced to be believed. It was a system rotten to the core and riddled with inconsistencies. We won the occasional Triple Crown in spite of the selection system and not, I can assure you, because of it.
With professionalism has come transparency and accountability. It is still in its embryonic stage when compared to other codes but, in terms of equality of opportunity and selection based on fairness and form, this Kidney era is as good as it gets. His predecessor Eddie O'Sullivan paved the way but where Kidney scores even more is in his trust of those around him, which permeates through to the players.
As one brought up on a system that reeked of cronyism in high places, it's clear to me that today's elite enjoy a different backdrop entirely from the back-scratching days of yore. It makes for a pretty solid springboard for the Grand Slam defence.
And with the greatest of respect to our Italian visitors, the fixtures have fallen kindly. Not for a minute am I suggesting they are lambs to the slaughter -- the image of Martin Castrogiovanni, Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Fabio Ongaro as lambs doesn't quite fit -- but as a physical examination ahead of Paris in seven days' time, I cannot think of a better way to go.
Nick Mallett knows the score only too well. The words "damage limitation" will not be uttered in the Azzurri build-up but the former Springbok coach is on record calling for Six Nations competitiveness as the bottom line. These are tough times for Italian rugby, not helped by the inability of the Italian Federation and Celtic Rugby to find common ground for Italian clubs' admittance to the Magners League.
Surely, if the DUP and Sinn Fein can eventually overlap, then the FIR and Celtic Rugby can find some semblance of Stormont inspiration? Unlike Jamie Heaslip, I do not believe the closed Celtic shop will impact on Italy's performance; professional players everywhere are much too self-absorbed for that, but it does keep the Italian game trapped in a long, dark tunnel.
For the sake of Italian pride, and the value of the Six Nations, I sincerely hope the team in blue put it up to the team in green today.
Of more immediate concern is the 'P Factor'. It is imperative that patience is at the heart of this Irish performance. The Italians will play to their two great strengths, scrum and maul. That is guaranteed.
We must match them where they are strongest. It is not about Cian Healy versus Castrogiovanni, and the young Leinster tyro more than anybody must keep a lid on his physical and psychological desire in that regard, but it is about unit performance and collective performance.
Against Italy, as much as any major nation, you have to earn the right to spread it wide. And patience must extend to the crowd. Last year's Grand Slam has raised the bar incredibly high and with that comes soaring levels of public expectation. Patience is, I have little doubt, a virtue Kidney has been drilling in to his charges all week. Paul O'Connell suggested it will be the toughest forward grilling of all. It was no throwaway line.
Craig Gower, the Bayonne out-half recruited from Australian rugby league, is Italy's latest attempt at replacing the so-far irreplaceable Diego Dominguez. Les Kiss knows him well and has highlighted his desire (unlike many league converts) to embrace the game. He will test the Irish defence in a different way but I think it most unlikely he will have developed his kicking game sufficiently to probe those areas where there might be cause for concern.
It is a great day for Kevin McLaughlin, in many ways the perfect setting for his Test debut. He expects it to be unforgiving and it will be, but he is on home soil in a team high on confidence and bursting with experience.
Bear in mind some of those not in action today. If all were fit and well, Kidney could field a back three of Keith Earls, Shane Horgan and Luke Fitzgerald. He could have Jonny Sexton and Eoin Reddan at half-back. Or what about a back row of Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Denis Leamy?
These are rich times indeed -- and no, we are not losing the run of ourselves. The fact that both Jerry Flannery and Rory Best are back on board with minimal game-time (while speaking volumes for the resolve of each) indicates the well only running so deep. There are others -- Sean Cronin, the Fogartys et al -- but none is yet at the level required. Expect a case of job share in the hooking slot between Flannery and Best today more than ever.
Leo Cullen's call-up represents the just reward for ultra-consistent play. More of the same and it could make life even more difficult for Kidney in a few days' time. That is how the squad system should work and why playmaker supreme Ronan O'Gara will slot back in seamlessly. So too Andrew Trimble, whose re-selection I fully support. Our back three of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Trimble is as good as anyone's.
Earls and O'Brien offer the most obvious mid-match impact off the bench and that, I suspect, will be the plan.
The Italians seldom fail to deliver in the opening two matches and this tournament will be little different. 1/50 for Ireland represents mad odds but whatever else, bookies don't qualify as mad.
With patience followed by polish the key, take Ireland to eventually break free and finish with a bit to spare.