Flying Earls ready to grab chance on centre stage
Both Declan Kidney and Paul McNaughton reinforced my faith in Irish rugby with their comments after the Wales game that placed a major emphasis on next Saturday's final match with Scotland.
Yes, it is the last game of the Six Nations campaign and yes, it could well be the final Croke Park hurrah. It is most unlikely to lead to a second Six Nations title but a win would see us take the Triple Crown for an incredible fifth time in seven seasons and the 11th time overall (thereby edging one ahead of the Scots).
Bear in mind that it took us one year short of 100 to put together our first five, yet here we are with home advantage on the cusp of a fifth win in seven.
If that doesn't put the glory of this generation in some well-defined context, then I don't know what does.
McNaughton and I are of similar vintage and played together for club and country.
Work took Macker to the USA in the early 1980s when in his rugby prime. There is every chance that, had he stayed home, he would have been central to the Triple Crown wins of '82 and '85.
Instead, he listened with great tuning difficulty on a radio from afar to the daring deeds of Ciaran Fitzgerald, Ollie Campbell and Co making the big breakthrough in the year McNaughton left.
He knows what a Triple Crown win meant to Irish rugby then and what it still means now. We both watched in near disbelief as the Triple Crown win in Murrayfield in 2007 was greeted with muted Irish celebration bordering on disdain.
Kidney might not have been on board as a player, but he knows as well as any what it takes to string three successive wins together against England, Wales and Scotland at any time in this ultra-competitive tournament.
We all want to move on to bigger and better things -- such as reaching the semi-finals at the next World Cup in New Zealand -- but please let us keep some perspective along the way.
Should France take the Grand Slam and title, as I expect them to in Paris on Saturday, it will be a 17th outright championship and ninth Slam well earned. They beat us all ends up in what was effectively the tournament decider at the Stade de France.
However, the response of this outstanding group of Irish players has been exceptional. To put together back-to-back wins against the three home countries after being smashed in Paris would represent an outstanding achievement.
Not for a minute is this observer counting his chickens but the newest challenge faced by Kidney and his squad -- dealing with a defeat -- has been met in the most positive way. The visit of the Scots, who have precious little to lose, will test the fibre of this Irish squad again.
So what does Kidney do now? The easy and most likely option -- assuming everyone is fit -- is to re-select en bloc. If Gordon D'Arcy, David Wallace and Keith Earls come through, then I expect an unchanged starting XV for the third game in a row.
However, there is still room for debate in three areas: centre, out-half and tight-head prop.
If D'Arcy is fit enough, he should play. However, if his dead leg prevents him from training -- and it looks like he will be sidelined until Thursday at the earliest -- there is an opportunity to give Earls a start in the centre -- with Brian O'Driscoll moving inside to No 12.
The alternative is to reintroduce Paddy Wallace at inside-centre, thereby keeping midfield change to a minimum. That would leave Earls on the left wing but given the Munster man's form and visibly growing confidence, I would play him at No 13, his preferred position. The closer to the action he is, the more effective he will be.
That would open the way for Andrew Trimble, who, like Paddy Wallace, has been so unfortunate to lose out in this ever-strengthening squad -- and remember Luke Fitzgerald is well on the mend.
I expect John Hayes and Jonny Sexton to retain their places and, on Saturday's evidence, so they should but where there is so little risk involved, does the opportunity for squad advancement not hold?
Kidney, a master of mind-games, will appreciate what a start for Tony Buckley or recall for Ronan O'Gara might do for each. Equally, though, Triple Crown-winning involvement could boost Sexton's status in the squad even further.
I would be very surprised if there is any change to the side, save for injury, when Kidney announces his squad today.
I would retain Geordan Murphy at full-back ahead of Rob Kearney -- the Leicester man was again looking every bit the confident part prior to the re-shuffle necessitated by D'Arcy's injury.
So should D'Arcy not make it, and allowing for the turnaround of just seven days -- which limits Kidney's options -- I would go for a Triple Crown assault XV along the following lines:
G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), B O'Driscoll (capt, Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster); D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Buckley (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster), S Jennings (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), R Kearney (Leinster).