AS Declan Kidney squad announcements go, yesterday's Six Nations and Ireland 'A' (Wolfhounds) selections were more dramatic than we have become accustomed to.
Tony Buckley and Tomas O'Leary's absence from the Six Nations squad came as a major surprise and represent another blow in a bad week for the Munster establishment. While both demotions to the Wolfhounds panel are justifiable on form, with Mike Ross and Peter Stringer fully deserving their higher rating, loyalty has tended to hold sway in the past and Buckley and O'Leary seemed to be established first choices leading into the World Cup.
Of course, this does not mean that they cannot still be and there is also the issue of game time as Buckley and O'Leary have both had truncated seasons. On that basis, strong outings with the Wolfhounds could still propel them back into the starting team to take on Italy in little over two weeks' time. As Kidney pointed out: "The players named in the Wolfhounds squad are very much in contention for the game against Italy."
However, it does strongly suggest that, after missing out in November, Ross' form for Leinster has established him as the first-choice tight-head for, even though John Hayes is included in the senior squad, there are no criteria whereby the Munster veteran could be rated ahead of Ross at this stage.
Tom Court was always a certain inclusion and is the perfect bench option, given his ability to play both sides of the scrum. But Court has been playing loose-head all season to accommodate BJ Botha in the Ulster side, while Ross has been playing consistently well in the No 3 jersey.
On form, Jamie Hagan should be in the senior squad ahead of Hayes but the plan looks to be to blood the Connacht tight-head at 'A' level first.
The scrum-half position now looks to be a shoot-out between Stringer and Eoin Reddan, with the former's lightning delivery giving him the edge if Ireland look to expand their attacking horizon. However, O'Leary has been a key player for Kidney over the past two seasons and, even with Isaac Boss' rejuvenation since his trek south from Ulster to Leinster, the Corkman is too good not to bounce back.
Speaking of rejuvenation, Shane Horgan, who has been included in previous Kidney squads when his form did not appear to merit it, is rewarded for a string of excellent displays under Joe Schmidt. However, there is no room for Horgan's Leinster colleague Fergus McFadden who, despite playing out of position, has been the form left wing in Ireland this season and has reason to feel a tad miffed at his exclusion.
That said, Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls are quality wing options, but McFadden has been the stand-out and would bring the added benefit of his excellent goal-kicking, should it be needed, and ability to play across the three-quarter line.
With Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy unavailable, Gavin Duffy makes the squad but is short on match time due to his recent injuries. Although the No 15 jersey appears destined for Fitzgerald, there would be no issues with Duffy in that position as he has been consistently effective there for Connacht over the past few seasons.
Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara will again battle for the out-half jersey, with the Leinster man in the driving seat on the basis of November's preferences. However, it should be comforting for Kidney to know he has two No 10s in good nick this season.
O'Gara was swept up in the communal criticism that greeted Munster's Heineken Cup exit last Sunday, but the problem was the subjugation of the Munster pack and misguided tactics.
Ian Humphreys should be next in line behind those two but the Ireland management are invested in Paddy Wallace as back-up out-half and centre and Humphreys must content himself with a place in the 'A' squad.
The big surprise in the pack is the inclusion of Mike McCarthy. The initial reaction was that he and Rhys Ruddock could be squad ballast to help out at training, but Ruddock is a player the Ireland management have great faith in after his hugely impressive contribution last summer and McCarthy has been excellent for Connacht, with the added bonus of covering second and back-rows.
Jerry Flannery is named as one of three hookers along with Rory Best and Sean Cronin. When fit, Flannery is the designated first choice but injuries have seen him play hardly any rugby this season and his return for the Six Nations would appear to be more in hope than expectation. Best has also had injury issues to deal with, but while he is doubtful for Ulster's crucial Heineken Cup clash with Aironi this weekend, he is expected to be back in time for the Italy match at the start of February.
Either way, Cronin has shown his capacity to perform at international level and Damien Varley, included in the 'A' squad, is another quality option if required.
Kevin McLaughlin and Dan Tuohy are two other Wolfhound selections who have shown they can step up if required, while Sean O'Brien's stunning form for Leinster guaranteed his inclusion in the senior panel.
Fionn Carr, who scored a try from full-back in Connacht's win over Bayonne last weekend, did not make either selection but could still come into the reckoning for the 'A' squad as a space has been left there to fill after this weekend's matches and would appear to be destined for a back-three player.
Niall O'Connor is named along with Humphreys in the 'A' squad, which seems harsh on Ian Keatley, who has played more rugby and to greater effect than the Ulsterman this season.
Once the last round of Heineken Cup pool games are completed, the international intrigue will be in full swing and Kidney stressed that Ireland will not be using the Six Nations as a World Cup dry run.
"The Six Nations remains one of the best tournaments in world rugby," he said. "We will be treating it as a separate entity from what happens over the rest of the year and focus on building on the positives from November for the championship."
Squad for Six Nations
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster)
Gavin Duffy (Connacht)
Keith Earls (Munster)
Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster)
Shane Horgan (Leinster)
Ronan O'Gara (Munster)
Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster)
Eoin Reddan (Leinster)
Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
Peter Stringer (Munster)
Andrew Trimble (Ulster)
Paddy Wallace (Ulster)
Rory Best (Ulster)
Tom Court (Ulster)
Sean Cronin (Connacht)
Leo Cullen (Leinster)
Stephen Ferris (Ulster)
Jerry Flannery (Munster)
John Hayes (Munster)
Cian Healy (Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)
Shane Jennings (Leinster)
Denis Leamy (Munster)
Mike McCarthy (Connacht)
Donncha O'Callaghan (Munster)
Paul O'Connell (Munster)
Sean O'Brien (Leinster)
Mick O'Driscoll (Munster)
Michael Ross (Leinster)
Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
David Wallace (Munster)
O2 Ireland Wolfhounds
Backs – Isaac Boss (Leinster), Ian Humphreys (Ulster), Denis Hurley (Munster), Keith Matthews (Connacht), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Johne Murphy (Munster) , Niall O'Connor (Ulster), Tomas O'Leary (Munster), Eoin O'Malley (Leinster), A.N. Other.
Forwards –Nigel Brady (Ulster) Tony Buckley (Munster) Willie Faloon (Ulster) Jamie Hagan (Connacht) Chris Henry (Ulster) Kevin McLaughlin (Leinster) Dominic Ryan (Leinster) Donnacha Ryan (Munster) Devin Toner (Leinster), Dan Tuohy (Ulster) Damien Varley (Munster), Brett Wilkinson (Connacht)