Kidney's weakest rivals pose big dilemma
THERE is a story, now enshrined in Irish sports sub-editing folklore, regarding an All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Kilkenny.
It involves 45 inches of preview copy (approximately 1,500 words) and a sub-editor charged with making sure it slotted in neatly to the space provided before putting a headline on top to grab the eye and lure the reader in.
It was a forensic piece of knowledgeable GAA journalism, the merits of each player and his marker weighed up, with other factors such as the referee, weather and "glorious tradition" taken into account, before this hurling magnum opus hurtled into a climactic final paragraph.
"This is Kilkenny's title to lose," it read, "but Cork have the capacity to spill the Cats' cream and, of course, you can never rule out the draw."
Stick a headline on that one ...
It is customary on the Tuesday morning of international week to attempt to predict the Ireland team to be announced later that afternoon and, ordinarily, while Ireland coach Declan Kidney is notoriously hard to read in this regard, rugby pundits could have a decent stab at it with buttocks raised a few inches above the fence.
However, the variables going into Saturday's Six Nations opener against Italy (lack of game time, a healthy array of options, the World Cup development prerogative, the quality of opposition and the need to open this campaign with a bang) mean this tea-leaf reading exercise has never been more precarious.
Let's start with the marquee issue of out-half which, in seasons past, would have been the debate most easily dispensed with. Since 2004, Ronan O'Gara has been a certain starter for 10, untouchable as pivot and the central figure behind Ireland's international offensive.
However, Jonathan Sexton's emergence for Leinster and for Ireland in the November internationals has given Kidney two quality options in this key position, a crucial development looking ahead to New Zealand 2011.
With both men in fine form for their provinces, it would be impossible to quibble with either selection but, while O'Gara's Six Nations credentials are well established, there may well be a desire to see how his Leinster rival fares in the cauldrons of the Stade De France on Saturday week and Twickenham a fortnight later, promoting the case for Sexton finding his groove in the lead-in against the Italians.
In a sense, having Italy first up is awkward because the tournament's weakest team represent the best opportunity to have a look at up-and-comers such as Donnacha Ryan, Tom Court or Sean Cronin or to assess the rejuvenation of the likes of Andrew Trimble and Shane Horgan.
However, the Grand Slam champions are also aware of the imperative to open with a strong statement and, with Paris rolling around seven days later, there is also the need to get things clicking before a trip to the venue where Ireland have not enjoyed victory for 10 years -- now a major target in the evolution of this team.
And, with the Ireland scrum identified widely as a potential Achilles heel and the Italians boasting one of the most feared front rows in the world, the Irish pack is likely to be jammed with experience.
Marcus Horan (who coped admirably with Martin Castrogiovanni in Rome last year) fits the bill in this regard but has only just returned to action and is on A-team duty so the sensible solution is to continue Cian Healy's rise to international prominence by seeing how he fares against one of the game's foremost tight-heads.
John Hayes is expected to edge closer to that magical 100-cap mark while Jerry Flannery, despite being absent for Munster for the past two moinths, looks the best bet for hooker, similar to his selection heading into the November series. Sean Cronin has a big future at this level but it would be a big ask throwing the Connacht man in from the off and he could be on the bench as Rory Best, who played well for 40 minutes against the Saxons, is another recent returnee.
If it were later in the championship, this would be the perfect opportunity to see how Ryan or Sean O'Brien would fare as back-ups to Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace respectively but, in the circumstances, it is logical to expect a back five of O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Wallace and Jamie Heaslip.
The doubt over Ferris could lead to a well-earned call-up for Leinster's Kevin McLaughlin with Paris in mind but there is enough time between now and Saturday to name Ferris and see how he improves over the week.
Tomas O'Leary should be at scrum-half, while a first-choice three-quarter line (in the absence of Luke Fitzgerald) of Rob Kearney at 15, Bowe on the right wing, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in the centre with Keith Earls on the left can be expected to get an opportunity to gel ahead of their upcoming French examination.
Thus, with the exception of D'Arcy for Wallace at inside centre, we could see the same 15 that started in Ireland's last international against South Africa. Alternatively, Kidney might view this as the best opportunity to try out some new blood irrespective of the opening day imperatives, or he might limit the changes to bringing O'Gara back at 10.
And we thought hurling was complicated.
POSSIBLE IRELAND XV (v Italy) -- R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; S Ferris/K McLaughlin, D Wallace, J Heaslip.