Click here for photos of the Ireland squad in training at St. Gerard's School in Bray, in advance of Sunday's Guinness Autumn Test match against the Pacific Islanders.
Pictured above: Leinster's teenage full-back/winger Luke Fitzgerald goes through some stretches at Wednesday's training session in Bray, alongside his provincial team-mate Keith Gleeson.
Fitzgerald said of his first call-up to the Irish team: "I'm just delighted to be here (with the extended squad). I can't say I saw it coming. It was an amazing experience to pull on the Ireland 'A' jersey last week in Limerick - this is one step higher again."
The Ireland team's Athletic trainer Brian Green assists scrum half Peter Stringer with some stretches. The Munster number 9 has passed Kevin Maggs' 70-cap mark and this weekend he will join retired out-half David Humphreys, Ireland's second most-capped player behind Malcolm O'Kelly, on 72 caps.
Gordon D'Arcy, Rory Best, Brian O'Driscoll and Malcolm O'Kelly in action during Wednesday's training session in Bray. In what was his second game as Ireland's captain, O'Driscoll grabbed a try in Ireland's 64-17 success over Fiji in November 2002. His centre partner Kevin Maggs bagged a hat-trick in that one-sided affair.
It is warm-up time for Munster and Ireland's Denis Leamy and Ronan O'Gara. Both players are on the replacements bench for this weekend's final Test of the Guinness Autumn Series. Explaining the team selection, Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan said: "I'm happy with the (nine) changes made - I know there are a fair few! We could always have stepped back and said let's just make sure we win this game, but it would be a missed opportunity. It's a strong side I've picked anyway."
The promotion of the 19-year-old Luke Fitzgerald, pictured above with ball in hand, into the Ireland starting line-up has predictably grabbed the most headlines as O'Sullivan's charges bid to end their autumn run on a high. The coach himself said: "Luke has really impressed me since the start of the season. He's been there or thereabouts in a very competitive Leinster back line.
"Luke has enjoyed a remarkable rise but if you're good enough, you're old enough. I saw him play in a schools game 18 months ago against France and I was very impressed with him. He's a very talented player."
Clontarf and Leinster number 8 Jamie Heaslip stretches under the watchful eye of Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan. Kildare youngster Heaslip, who is coaching the Newbridge Under-20s as well as holding down his spot at the tail of Leinster's scrum, has had his solid form rewarded with a first Ireland cap.
O'Sullivan said of the 22-year-old: "Jamie Heaslip has been on the scene for almost two seasons now. He hit the ground running with Leinster a couple of years ago and has kept his good form. He's in a very competitive environment in the back row."
Ronan O'Gara and Luke Fitzgerald look on at training on Wednesday. While O'Gara, Ireland's record points scorer, is assured of his place in the Irish squad for the 2007 World Cup, teenage sensation Fitzgerald could still play his way into contention.
Admitting as much, O'Sullivan said: "I don't want to put too much pressure on him (Luke) because its a big step up to Test level. He didn't put a foot wrong in the 'A' game against Australia last week and his call-up is just reward for that performance.
"The World Cup is only 10 months away and if he's going to make a pitch to get into that squad then this is the opportunity to do it."
Members of the Irish coaching staff watch the players go through their paces at St. Gerard's. Ahead of his 60th Test match in charge of Ireland, O'Sullivan welcomed the concept of the Pacific Islands Rugby Alliance, which came about in 2004.
He reckoned: "The Pacific Islanders have a huge part to play in world rugby. One of the problems we have in world rugby is if you look at the World Cups, they've been dominated by a handful of sides.
"If it's going to develop as an event, especially amongst people who are not necessarily rugby people, you want to see a competition that's exciting, competitive and not predictable. I mean, who wants to go to a World Cup every four years when you know the semi-finals before you buy your ticket?
"There's a hot bed of rugby there already that hasn't really blossomed in the professional era. It was probably in a much healthier state in the amateur days but since the game went professional, there's been a bit of a haemorrhaging of better players into particularly the Australian and New Zealand game - it's very hard to stop that and there's no reason to stop it," he added.
"Unfortunately the Islanders have struggled to gain consistency because they've no professional base in their home countries and they lose players overseas. It's a difficult situation but it's one area which can help the world game and this tour is part of that, to give them more exposure."
O'Sullivan has no fears about switching Paddy Wallace from inside centre, where he has played regularly for Ulster this season, to out-half as he continues his search for the ideal back-up number 10 for Ronan O'Gara.
The Irish supremo countered: "The switch is not as difficult as it seems for Paddy. Firstly, he's an outside half and has played most of his rugby there. It's only this season he's been playing at centre.
"The centre position is only a little bit different to out-half - he's not the key decision maker but the lines of running, handling and pressure are similar so it's not a major reshuffle to put him at out-half.
"New Zealand move their players around all the time. We also have to take that view - if he's good enough we'll play him there. Ideally we'd like him to play there for Ulster but look at Shane Horgan - he moves from wing to centre and has done so for this game."
Shane Horgan controls a ball at head-height during Wednesday's training session. The Leinster player will be making his 51st appearance for Ireland this weekend, but only his tenth as a centre.
**All photos by Dan Sheridan and Billy Stickland of Inpho Photography**
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