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Opportunity Knocks For Ireland Hopefuls

Opportunity Knocks For Ireland Hopefuls

Adrian O’Farrell puts his cards on the table and takes a stab at predicting the make-up of the Ireland and Ireland A squads for the Summer Tour and Churchill Cup.

The chances that Eddie O’Sullivan will name a full-strength Irish squad for Argentina are roughly on a par with those of Argentina banning the eating of beef. As a consequence, opportunity will be knocking for quite a few players that ordinarily wouldn’t be in the shake-up when Eddie names his two squads at the end of this month.

The Argentina tour takes place at the same time as the Churchill Cup, which takes place this year in England. If we assume that probably a dozen or so of Ireland’s leading international players are excluded from the Argentinian adventure, then the knock-on effects on the Churchill Cup will be considerable.

Ireland finished third in the Churchill Cup last year, claiming the scalp of the English Saxons and the USA, but losing 27-6 to the New Zealand Maori, the competition winners. This year Ireland ‘A’ are to play Canada and the Maori plus one other match depending on results.

While we may bemoan the fixture, much like we bemoan the World Cup pool draws pitting us against Argentina so regularly, there is nothing for it but to make the best of it.

The best of it in these circumstances most certainly does not include our sending down a full squad and exposing ourselves to the possibility of defeat. This isn’t to suggest that this would happen, but with raucous home support and a more than handy team, it would be foolish to deny that it is a reasonable possibility. Ireland, courtesy of our 16-15 defeat of Argentina in Australia in the 2003 World Cup, as well as two further narrow wins (16-7 in Lansdowne Road in 2002 and 21-19 in Lansdowne Road in 2004), allied to our IRB ranking, have the psychological upper hand as things stand.

By sending down a less than full-strength side we will ensure that this is maintained. And were we to win even one of the two tests in these circumstances, then that upper hand will become even more pronounced.

So who is likely to be left at home to rest up? By my reckoning, it may be as many as twelve of the starting side from the 6 Nations. Expect most of Dempsey, Horgan, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, O’Gara, Stringer, Hickie, Hayes, Horan, Rory Best, O’Connell, Leamy, Wallace and Easterby to be given an extended break this summer.

Fullback should be one of the most interesting selections as this should provide an opportunity for Geordan Murphy to re-state his form. Put it this way, although he will have as busy an end to the season as anybody, he’ll be happy enough to travel. His support act is likely to be Rob Kearney, who seems to have gained the upper hand over Luke Fitzgerald for now, with Daniel Riordan and Gavin Duffy in the Churchill frame along with Bryn Cunningham.

The threequarters are likely to feature Tommy Bowe, who looked sharp against Cardiff Blues at the weekend, Barry Murphy, Kieran Lewis, Luke Fitzgerald. Either Anthony Horgan or John Kelly may be going to England.

Who travels to England in the centre will be very interesting. John Hearty and Keith Matthews are likely candidates, but O’Sullivan may prefer to take a flier on somebody like Darren Cave or else sacrifice John Kelly to the Churchill squad to solve this one whilst also giving them a leader.

O’Sullivan will surely be interested to see how Paddy Wallace goes at outhalf under pressure, with Jeremy Staunton presumably also to travel. However, he may also prefer to give Staunton some actual match time in the Churchill Cup with Jonathan Sexton also in the shakeup.

At scrumhalf, the interest will be in seeing how O’Sullivan wishes to view Eoin Reddan. With many commentators salivating over his recent form, he may ratchet up the pressure on Stringer and Boss by bringing him to Argentina and giving him a start in one of the matches. Alternatively, he may give him three runs in the Churchill Cup with Kieran Campbell acting as backup to Boss in the senior side.

In the front row, I expect he will want to bring Jerry Flannery to give him more game time than he has hewn out of this season. Frankie Sheahan, John Fogarty, Brian Blaney and Bernard Jackman will battle it out for the Churchill Cup spots.

Simon Best will add some seniority and Argentina will be a fine test for himself and Bryan Young. On this basis, O’Sullivan may also bring out Rory Best as well. The understudy prop positions on tour will probably go to Ronan McCormick and Peter Bracken may get some reward for his startling progress with Wasps. It’s where he goes for the Churchill Cup props that will really be interesting. Daragh Hurley may find himself elevated ahead of schedule here along with Tony Buckley. In fact, there’s a decent case for Reggie Corrigan making a final tour as captain of the Churchill Cup squad.

Second and back rows provide more options as usual. Even in the absence of the O’Cs, Malcolm O’Kelly, the returning Leo Cullen, Mick O’Driscoll and Trevor Hogan won’t be out of place. O’Kelly could certainly use the game time given how much of the season he has missed through injury and will be keen to remind Eddie that he remains a viable contender for the World Cup.

In the back row, the Argentina-bound are likely to be five from Neil Best, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Shane Jennings, Alan Quinlan and Keith Gleeson. Ferris did very well for Ulster in a losing outing against Cardiff but may be the one to go to England. The Churchill Cup back row will be filled out by hardy annuals such as Roger Wilson, Stephen Keogh, John Muldoon and John O’Sullivan.

Both expeditions will provide plenty of interest by way of seeing who can cut it in demanding circumstances and who can take the opportunity presented.