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Earls on trial for Ireland No 13 jersey

WITH the festive season done and dusted, the evenings beginning to stretch and the hangovers receding, the collective minds of the rugby world are beginning to switch towards the Six Nations.

Sure, there are two Pro12 games and the final rounds of the Heineken Cup to negotiate for the provinces, but with England, France and Scotland naming their squads this week, an Ireland 'A' international against England at the end of January and the opening game against Wales less than a month away, there's limited opportunity for players to impress Declan Kidney.

Tonight at Thomond Park is one such chance. It remains to be seen whether Kidney will revolutionise his set-up or stick with the tried and tested, gradually introducing change, but there are a few wearing red in Limerick who will be hoping to force their way into contention.

Of course, Munster have the primary function of beating Treviso on their minds, and all the soundings from the camp this week warned against complacency.

After all, the Pro12 champions have dropped to fourth on the table, 11 points behind leaders Leinster after losing two of their last three games, to the Ospreys and Ulster.

But in this league, form counts for very little because of the changing line-ups on a week-to-week basis.

Tony McGahan sent a callow team north last weekend to face a full-strength Ulster outfit and Munster were duly sent home with a thumping. Ten changes later, the Australian is showing his full hand ahead of next week's European battle with Castres.

Most pertinent appears to be the selection of Keith Earls at outside-centre, where the Moyross man is again given a chance to stake a claim for Brian O'Driscoll's No 13 shirt next month.

Each of the four provincial outside-centre berths are occupied by Irishmen this weekend, but it appears to be Leinster's Fergus McFadden and Earls who are battling for O'Driscoll's jersey, with Ulster's Darren Cave searching for form and Connacht's Kyle Tonetti some way away yet.

Earls' ability to break a line is unquestioned. But he has always looked more comfortable in the back-three, where he has space to run and doesn't face the defensive complexity that an outside-centre must deal with.

Outside Earls, the Munster back-three of Simon Zebo, Johne Murphy and Denis Hurley will want to press their case, but it's up front where there is more potential for a breakthrough.

Apart from the Springbok props and the newly re-signed Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell, there are five members of the pack who will be hoping to get the Six Nations nod.

Donnacha Ryan is again preferred to Donncha O'Callaghan, and after several impressive cameos in the World Cup the 28-year-old must be hopeful of adding to his 13 caps. A big display against the imposing Italians could cement his Heineken Cup place, giving O'Callaghan a limited chance of impressing the Ireland coaches.

Hooker Damien Varley looks guaranteed for the Six Nations squad if Jerry Flannery's injury woes continue, while the back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Niall Ronan and James Coughlan will all be hoping for a 'Wolfhounds' spot to stake their claim for further involvement.

A jaw injury has ruled O'Mahony out in recent weeks, but if the Cork Constitution tyro can show some of his early season form on his return, then he has a real shout of being involved this spring.

Treviso arrive on the back of a renaissance this season -- their progress has been marked in their second Celtic League campaign.

Having lost to their opponents in Italy last February, Munster will know better than to take them for granted. Treviso have won more of their league games outside Italy than they have lost this campaign too, beating Connacht, Ulster and Glasgow on their visits.

But a full-strength Munster should have more than enough to win, with the South African powerhouses Wian du Preez and BJ Botha propelling the scrum forward and the pace of Conor Murray, Earls and Zebo far too much for their guests.

When the troops start to tire, there is a mix of seasoned internationals like Marcus Horan, O'Callaghan and Tomas O'Leary alongside the freshness of Denis Fogarty, Stephen Archer and Danny Barnes.

Given their league position, the onset of European rugby and the desire to impress the international set-up a bonus-point victorty should be the least the players are demanding of themselves.

Verdict: Munster win

MUNSTER -- D Hurley; J Murphy, K Earls, L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: D Fogarty, M Horan, S Archer, D O'Callaghan, B Holland, T O'Leary, I Keatley, D Barnes.

TREVISO -- L McLean; L Nitoglia, T Benvenuti, A Sgarbi, B Williams; K Burton, T Botes; M Rizzo, F Sbaraglini, L Cittadini; A Pavanello (capt), C van Zyl; G Padro, A Zanni, M Vosawai. Reps: D Vidal, M Muccignat, IF Rouvet, V Bernabo, E Pavanello, S Picone, E Gori, A Di Bernardo.

REF -- N Owens (WRU).

Munster v Treviso,

Live, RTE 2, 8.15

Irish Independent