The Ireland Wolfhounds face the England Saxons in Cork tonight in a tie which is attracting far greater interest than an Ireland A side is accustomed to.
The days of the Eddie O’Sullivan era where there was little debate surrounding team selection are a distant memory. As we are experiencing a second wind of the ‘Golden Generation’ of Irish rugby, competition for starting places in Joe Schmidt’s side has never been stronger. There is no one injury which significantly weakens the team.
Therefore it is no surprise to see the interest in this evening’s fixture. Almost every player on the XV selected is in with a genuine chance of starting against Italy next week, pending a big performance at the recently named Irish Independent Park against the Saxons.
It is difficult to fathom certain players forcing their way into Joe Schmidt’s plans. Barring Rob Kearney getting struck by lightening, Felix Jones will not start in the 6 Nations. This raises an interesting question: why was the Munster full-back selected to captain the side?
Perhaps Schmidt was wary that the experimental nature of this fixture would mean that others are not likely to play the full 80 minutes, with one eye on next week. Positional changes in the backs may disrupt others, and the captaincy would act as a distraction to those concentrating on winning a starting shirt for next week. With Jones unlikely to make such a statement due to the quality above him in the pecking order, it is only logical that the role of skipper be given to somebody who will start and finish the game.
Another theory which stands to reason is that it was a crowd-pleasing decision. The re-opening of Musgrave Park is likely to draw a big crowd, and despite just two Munster players starting in what is a side top-heavy with Leinster players, assigning Jones is a move which appeases the Cork crowd. Essentially, Felix Jones as captain could well be a PR stunt.
While Robbie Henshaw impressed at 13 in November as Ireland began the post-BOD era, the Connacht centre is likely to move inside to 12 in the 6 Nations. This creates a void for the famous 13 shirt.
There are several potential suitors to the throne, and much of the talk in recent weeks was of Luke Fitzgerald. The 27 year-old has grown in stature game by game at midfield this season, and seems to have finally put his injury demons to bed once and for all.
But the Kiwi coach did not listen to the media, and has elected for Keith Earls at second centre, while Fitzgerald starts on the wing. While it is possible that they will be swapped in the second half, Earls provides an alternative in the centre, albeit one which few fancy. Despite great promise early in his career, Earls never has taken the next step. Although he is a solid provincial player, he is not truly of international standard.
Tonight he is presented with the opportunity to prove to the management that he is finally ready to take a step up.
The other selection which has caused much debate is Ian Madigan starting at out-half. While it has been widely anticipated that the Leinster utility player would lead the line against the Italians, a poor kicking display against Wasps last week has raised some doubts. These doubts were not quashed by his selection for the Ireland Wolfhounds. The possibility of Ian Keatley being favoured next week is very real.
The motive for playing Madigan this week is unclear. He is not in need of game time. He does not have much to prove. Simply, his selection next week would be a leap of faith following the kicking calamity in Coventry, and perhaps Schmidt wants to see if this was just a once off.
Ireland Wolfhounds XV to face England Saxons: Felix Jones (capt); Fergus McFadden; Keith Earls; Gordon D’Arcy; Luke Fitzgerald; Ian Madigan; Kieran Marmion; Jack McGrath; Richardt Strauss; Mike Ross; Iain Henderson; Mike McCarthy; Dominic Ryan; Sean O’Brien; Jack Conan.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.