Ireland ‘A’ and England Saxons go head-to-head at Welford Road this evening (kick-off 7.45pm), with the men in green gunning for revenge for last season’s 32-5 defeat to the English at Ravenhill.
FRIENDLY INTERNATIONAL: Friday, February 1
ENGLAND SAXONS v IRELAND ‘A’, Welford Road, Leicester, 7.45pm (live Sky Sports 2)
With the advent of the Churchill Cup and the need for more international game-time for players pushing for senior recognition, tonight’s friendly encounter offers both squads the chance to shine under the spotlight.
The benefit of these games can be seen in the fact that three of the Saxons’ four try scorers in last year’s corresponding game – James Haskell, David Strettle and Richard Wigglesworth – have been named in the England matchday 22 for tomorrow’s Six Nations clash with Wales.
From the Irish ‘A’ side of twelve months ago, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Leo Cullen, Bernard Jackman and Jonathan Sexton were all included in Eddie O’Sullivan’s extended 2008 Six Nations squad.
The Sky Sports cameras will add some extra spice to tonight’s tie as will Irish memories of last February’s disappointing loss in Belfast, which showed up a lack of preparation time on the hosts’ part.
The presence of ten full internationals in this Ireland ‘A’ side, including Shane Horgan who will captain the ‘A’ team for the first time, will help them greatly in their revenge mission.
All four provinces are represented in the Michael Bradley-coached line-up with Leicester’s own Johne Murphy being Ireland’s only overseas-based player.
Capped at ‘A’ level during last summer’s Churchill Cup, Murphy will come face to face with a few of his club-mates tonight and he is looking forward to that prospect.
“It is going to feel a bit weird coming out of the away dressing room but I’ve enjoyed some great occasions at Welford Road and this is sure to be another one,” he said.
The 23-year-old, who is Tigers’ second top try scorer this season with six touchdowns in 13 games, will line out on the right wing for the ‘A’ side, with his club-mate Tom Varndell also donning the number 14 jersey for the Saxons.
Murphy admitted: “My preferred position is full-back but I’ll play anywhere. I’d like to play a few games (for Leicester) at 15 but I think I’ve been doing all right on the wing and I’ll stay there and try to take my chances at 15 when they come.”
Varndell, who will be hoping to put on a show for the home fans, said: “Both myself and Johne, we know each other well so it will be a bit strange playing against him.
“But we’re used to opposing each other from some of our training sessions with Leicester.
“We’ve not really spoken about the Saxons game, we been too busy focusing on our recent games with Leicester for that.
“But I’m sure that there will be no love lost between us on the pitch though we will be good friends off it. My job on Friday is to be part of a winning side.”
For the Irish management and fans alike, there could be plenty to glean from tonight’s game – not least seeing how Leinster flyer Luke Fitzgerald gets on in an untried centre partnership with Horgan.
Just a year ago, Fitzgerald was contemplating a Six Nations championship with the Ireland Under-20s but injury ruled him out and interestingly, three of the successful U-20s from 2007, prop Cian Healy, flanker David Pollock and out-half Niall O’Connor, join him in tonight’s squad.
Connacht’s Andrew Dunne could also play himself into international contention with a solid display at number 10, while there will also be timely run-outs for the likes of Gavin Duffy, Tommy Bowe, Isaac Boss, Bryan Young, Trevor Hogan and Alan Quinlan.
Commenting on the selection, Ireland boss Eddie O’Sullivan said: “We’re trying a few experiments such as starting Luke (Fitzgerald) in the centre and we’re also using the game to give some quality pitch time to Shane (Horgan) and Alan (Quinlan), who only recently recovered from injury. It’s a big opportunity for Cian also.”
England Saxons coach Steve Bates said: “Having seen the strength and experience of the Ireland side, we’re fully prepared for a very tough but very exciting match.
“Their players have 150 caps between them and in likes of Shane Horgan and Alan Quinlan they have some very experienced international players.”
Tickets for tonight’s match, the first of its kind to be held at Welford Road in ten years, are available at the ground or via the Tigers ticket office (tel: 0044 (0) 8701 283430).
In advance of the 2008 Churchill Cup, Ireland ‘A’ will also be playing Scotland ‘A’ later this month – Friday, February 22 will see Bradley’s men visit McDiarmid Park in Perth to take on the Scots.
ENGLAND SAXONS: Nick Abendanon (Bath); Tom Varndell (Leicester Tigers), Ollie Smith (Leicester Tigers), Shane Geraghty (London Irish), Delon Armitage (London Irish); Ryan Lamb (Gloucester), Lee Dickson (Newcastle Falcons); Nick Wood (Gloucester), David Paice (London Irish), Jason Hobson (Bristol), Tom Palmer (London Wasps), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), Phil Dowson (Newcastle Falcons), Ben Woods (Newcastle Falcons), Jordan Crane (Leicester Tigers) (capt).
Replacements: Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), David Wilson (Newcastle Falcons), George Skivington (London Wasps), Will Skinner (Harlequins), James Grindal (Newcastle Falcons), Anthony Allen (Gloucester), Mike Brown (Harlequins).
IRELAND ‘A’: Gavin Duffy (Galwegians/Connacht); Johne Murphy (Leicester Tigers), Luke Fitzgerald (Blackrock College/Leinster), Shane Horgan (Boyne/Leinster) (capt), Tommy Bowe (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster); Andrew Dunne (Old Belvedere/Connacht), Isaac Boss (Ballymena/Ulster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Frankie Sheahan (Cork Constitution/Munster), Bryan Young (Ballymena/Ulster), Trevor Hogan (Shannon/Leinster), Ryan Caldwell (Dungannon/Ulster), Stephen Keogh (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Shane Jennings (St. Mary’s College /Leinster), Alan Quinlan (Shannon/Munster).
Replacements: Adrian Flavin (Buccaneers/Connacht), Declan Fitzpatrick (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster), David Pollock (Queen’s University/Ulster), Chris Keane (Old Belvedere/Leinster), Niall O’Connor (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), Daniel Riordan (Buccaneers/Connacht).
Referee: Peter Allan (Scotland)