Thursday 18 January 2018

Tony Ward: Battle hots up as Ireland hopefuls vie for starting berths

Andrew Trimble is pushing hard for an Ireland recall after returning from injury
Andrew Trimble is pushing hard for an Ireland recall after returning from injury
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So who are those players most likely to have been uttering "go easy on the pud Mum" over the festive period? It is a difficult time for professional sportsmen, who have to resist the temptation to indulge and give Christmas the full monty.

Rugby is relatively new in that respect - the odd charity game or 'marrieds v singles' on St Stephen's Day used to be about the height of oval ball activity in times past.

It's a different world these days and yesterday all four provinces were in Pro12 action. To be fair, missing out on second helpings at Christmas is a small price to pay for the very privileged lifestyle of professional rugby. I doubt there is a any modern player out there who doesn't appreciate how lucky he is.

With one more series of Pro 12 games to come followed by the final two pool rounds of the European Champions Cup, the Six Nations is fast coming into view, and public expectation is at a different level to where it was 12 months ago.

The pressure on Joe Schmidt is the price of success after nine victories from 10 Tests in 2014.

It is inevitable that minds will begin to wander to ever bigger and better things - a successful Six Nations title defence and a best ever World Cup showing.

Leinster's Jimmy Gopperth is in talks with Wasps about about becoming their new frontline fly-half next season. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Leinster's Jimmy Gopperth is in talks with Wasps about about becoming their new frontline fly-half next season. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

But back to the players and those with greatest incentive to resist the temptation to indulge over Christmas as they bid to stake a claim for a starting place against Italy on February 6.

With last year's successful wing pairing of Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney back on track, there is little room for Tommy Bowe or Simon Zebo to rest on their laurels.

At No 7, it looks like Rhys Ruddock will struggle to make it. He may not be a roving openside a la Chris Henry, Dominic Ryan or Tommy O'Donnell, but when it comes to mixing it in the close exchanges, Mike's boy is made of the right stuff.

Looking at Connacht's fringe contenders, Darragh Leader - if he can get game-time at full-back - Rodney Ah You, Kieran Marmion and possibly Denis Buckley have most to gain and most to prove.

And while we are top-heavy in wing talent, watch out for Matt Healy, whose form for the Westerners down that left flank has been consistently impressive.

Having Bundee Aki and Rob Henshaw in midfield provides a physical presence hitherto lacking and makes for a variety in possession upon which the back three should thrive.

It is early days yet for No 10 Jack Carty as he looks to establish himself in the game-directing role, but the signs are good.

For Leinster, Darragh Fanning (another wing in impressive form), Luke Fitzgerald, Kearney, D'Arcy, Madigan (wearing ten), Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong, Mike McCarthy, Ryan, Jordi Murphy, Noel Reid are all in the mix.

And even though he is a relative novice, watch out for Jack Conan at either No 6 or No 8.

Although no date has been fixed for their return, Lions duo Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien will have a lot of ground to make up in a very short period.

At Munster, where the backline has struggled all season, Felix Jones and Ian Keatley (third-choice Ireland out-half behind the injured Johnny Sexton and Madigan on form) still have a lot to do to make that match-day 23. Keith Earls may return, but time is against him.

Up front, with Dave Kilcoyne ruled out, it's O'Donnell, Dave Foley, Stephen Archer and Robin Copeland probably in that order.

John Ryan, Duncan Casey (coming on leaps and bounds), Stephen Archer and, possibly, Dave O'Callaghan are also in the frame.

In Ulster, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Paddy Jackson, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne have most to gain. Front-row Callum Black and Rob Herring could also come into the mix.

So what XV will face Italy?

If Trimble is back to his best, then it's a straight choice between Zebo and last year's Irish Player of the Year for the left flank. I expect Madigan will be out-half.

If they are match fit, Healy and O'Brien should start. The No 1 and No 11 shirts could make for the most difficult calls of all.

Criticism of class act Gopperth defies logic

I don't claim to know everything about the game - what goes on in the scrum is something of a mystery - but I know a good footballing out-half when I see one.

New Zealander Jimmy Gopperth is to the play-making manor born.

The former Hurricanes (Wellington) and Blues (Auckland) man is a natural No 10, yet he is on the receiving end of criticism from Leinster fans which defies logic.

He has been made the scapegoat for a recent lack of panache (despite still winning), effectively for being 'teacher's pet', or so the disaffected would have you believe.

Matt O'Connor has selected Ian Madigan at No 12 and Gopperth at No 10 (prior to Johnny Sexton's concussion) because he believes in getting his two best footballers on the field throughout a mini injury crisis.

Now comes speculation that the Kiwi is set to sign a lucrative deal with Wasps. I wish him well.

Irish Independent

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