The back-line which will start for Ireland against Canada in Saturday’s GUINNESS Series 2008 opener in Limerick will have an average age of 25, with record points scorer Ronan O’Gara the elder statesman at 31.
15 – KEITH EARLS (YOUNG MUNSTER/MUNSTER)
An all-action full-back or centre with bags of pace, KEITH EARLS has progressed through the ranks at Munster at a rate of knots.
The 21-year-old from Limerick, a son of Young Munster legend Ger Earls, has dazzled for his province already this season, scoring four tries in six competitive outings as well as making his Heineken Cup bow.
Earls, a member of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning Under-20 team from 2007, scored in each of the Ireland ‘A’ team’s matches at the 2007 Churchill Cup and helped the ‘A’ side retain the Plate title at last summer’s tournament.
The Young Munster clubman, certainly one of the most exciting young talents in Irish rugby, has a bright future ahead of him and the GUINNESS Series 2008 offers him his first chance to impress at senior level.
14 – TOMMY BOWE (OSPREYS)
A sturdy winger who can also play at centre, TOMMY BOWE has shown strong form for the Ospreys since his move away from Ulster in the summer.
He became the first Monaghan man to play for Ireland in 80 years when he made his Test debut against the USA in November 2004, scoring in the process.
A star performer at underage international level, Bowe enjoyed a seven-match run in the Irish senior team between 2005 and 2006 but has endured spells out of the squad, most notably missing last year’s Rugby World Cup.
He was back with a bang in the 2008 Six Nations when he touched down twice against Scotland, and subsequent starts against Wales, England, New Zealand and Australia saw him emerge as one of Ireland’s most consistent performers last season.
13 – BRIAN O’DRISCOLL (UCD/LEINSTER) (capt)
BRIAN O’DRISCOLL has been Ireland’s talismanic leader for the past five years, captaining his country to 32 wins (a 66.67% success rate) in 48 Test matches before the GUINNESS Series 2008.
The talented centre has skippered Ireland to three Triple Crowns (in 2004, 2006 and 2007) and also lifted the Magners League trophy for Leinster last season.
His stunning hat-trick of tries against France in 2000 guided Ireland to their first win in Paris for 28 years.
O’Driscoll combines sheer determination, brilliant defensive qualities, dazzling attacking skills and a winning mentality to be one of the most feared players in the world.
From his wonder try for the Lions against Australia in 2001 through to his effort against the Wallabies last June – that was his 32nd try, edging him further ahead on Ireland’s top try scorers list – he has had some magic moments.
Retaining the captaincy under new coach Declan Kidney, with whom he won the Under-19 World Youth Championship in 1998, O’Driscoll wants to lead Ireland to ‘something special’ this season.
12 – LUKE FITZGERALD (BLACKROCK COLLEGE/LEINSTER)
A talent-laden back with an enviable box of tricks, LUKE FITZGERALD comes from a strong rugby pedigree with his father being former Ireland prop Des Fitzgerald.
Comfortable at full-back, on the wing or at centre, the 21-year-old has long been marked out as a player to watch since starring for Blackrock College at Schools level.
Indeed, just a few months after completing his Leaving Cert in the summer of 2006, he was debuting for Leinster and then Ireland (against the Pacific Islanders).
Since then, Fitzgerald has been outfoxing defences in the Magners League and Heineken Cup, chiseling out a fine early career with Leinster, for whom he has scored five tries in eight games this season.
Following on from two appearances as a replacement against Wales and England (in the 2008 Six Nations), an outing in Ireland’s midfield against the Barbarians last May suggested his international future may lay at centre.
11 – ROB KEARNEY (UCD/LEINSTER)
Rock solid under the high ball and a lively runner in attack, ROB KEARNEY has quickly become a regular in the Ireland team since impressing as a replacement against Italy last February.
Widely acknowledged as Ireland’s best player on last summer’s tour to New Zealand and Australia, Kearney will relish the chance to enhance his reputation further in the GUINNESS Series 2008.
Used by Leinster at full-back and on the wing, the Louth native first came to prominence at Schools level with Clongowes Wood.
His Leinster debut followed in 2005 and Irish caps at Under-19 and ‘A’ levels came before his senior bow against Argentina in June 2007.
His eye-catching performances in the 2008 Six Nations, which included tries against Scotland and England, helped establish him as a senior international. His younger brother David, who played for the Irish Under-20s last season, could follow in his footsteps.
10 – RONAN O’GARA (CORK CONSTITUTION/MUNSTER)
Ireland’s record points scorer, RONAN O’GARA is rightly acknowledged as one of the best out-halves in the business – cool under pressure, he boasts a brilliant kicking and tactical boot and has emerged as a world class game-breaker in recent years.
The Six Nations top points scorer during the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons, he is also the holder of the Heineken Cup’s points-scoring record and two Heineken Cup winners medals.
The Corkman famously duelled with his good friend, Ulster’s David Humphreys, for the Ireland number 10 jersey until the latter’s retirement in 2006.
Some highlights of his Test career include scoring a then Six Nations record of 30 points against Italy in 2000 and a record-equalling haul of ten conversions against Japan in 2000.
He is currently eighth on the list of world rugby’s top points scorers and memorably, O’Gara was the first points and try scorer for Ireland in their first ever outing at Croke Park last year.
He comes into the GUINNESS Series 2008 in buoyant mood, following the birth of his twins Molly and Rory and his ackowledgement as the 2008 Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Player of the Year.
9 – EOIN REDDAN (LONDON WASPS)
EOIN REDDAN, a lightning-quick player who reads the game very well, became Ireland’s first choice scrum half during last year’s Rugby World Cup and has not looked back since.
Eight of his nine Test starts, before the GUINNESS Series 2008, came in the past 14 months and his consistent displays for club and country have marked him out as one of Europe’s best number 9s.
The Limerick man scored a try in London Wasps’ Heineken Cup final win at Twickenham in 2007, a long way from picking up the game as a 13-year-old at Old Crescent.
Having been initially with Munster, he played for Connacht for two seasons before re-signing for Munster in 2003. Warren Gatland then snapped him up for Wasps, where he has become a vital cog in their team.
Involved for the first time in an Irish squad against Italy in 2006, Reddan has since done well to leapfrog both Isaac Boss and Peter Stringer in the scrum half pecking order.
PADDY WALLACE (BALLYMENA/ULSTER)
PADDY WALLACE has established himself as Ireland’s back-up out-half over the past season, but he added another string to his bow on the 2008 summer tour when he slotted in superbly well at centre alongside Brian O’Driscoll.
An attack-minded and multi-skilled back who can play at number 10, 12 or 15, Wallace has been in Ireland senior squads since 2002 but only made his debut as a replacement against South Africa in November 2006.
The Belfast man has been with Ulster since 2001 and has turned himself into a utility back, owing to David Humphreys’ long stranglehold on the number 10 berth.
He has played for Ireland at Under-19, Under-21, ‘A’, Sevens and senior levels. In undoubtedly one of his best performances in an Irish jersey, he scored 20 points against the All Blacks in an ‘A’ international at Ravenhill in 2001.
Along with Brian O’Driscoll and Donncha O’Callaghan, he was a member of the Declan Kidney-coached Irish team that won the Under-19 FIRA/World Youth Championship in France in 1998.
PETER STRINGER (SHANNON/MUNSTER)
The winner of two Heineken Cups and three Triple Crowns, PETER STRINGER has had a stellar provincial and international career and his ultra competitive nature has him wanting more.
Having lost his grip on the Munster and Ireland number 9 jerseys, Stringer has battled back (starting against Australia last June) and shown that he still has a lot to offer.
His accurate passing and almost telepathic understanding with half-back partner Ronan O’Gara has helped him be an indispensable member of Irish squads stretching back to 2000.
Testament to his fitness and form, the Corkman very rarely misses an international. He is Ireland’s most-capped scrum half and was a pivotal member of those Triple Crown-winning sides.
He started last year’s Rugby World Cup as Ireland’s first choice number 9, only for Eoin Reddan to edge past him by the tournament’s end. Will likely be most remembered for scoring ‘that’ try against Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup final.
SHANE HORGAN (BOYNE/LEINSTER)
A powerfully-built winger who has developed into a world class finisher, SHANE HORGAN has been a regular on Ireland’s right wing since starting against Scotland in February 2000.
His run of four tries in seven outings in the green jersey between 2006 and 2007, including that memorable cross-field scored against England, rubber-stamped Horgan’s reputation as a top quality wide man.
He initially climbed the international ladder with appearances for the Ireland Youths and Under-21s.
Horgan also boasts an impressive Heineken Cup strike rate of 24 tries in 65 games and has become a cornerstone of the Leinster side in recent years.
During the 2005 Lions tour, he made two Test appearances against New Zealand and scored some vital tries for Ireland in their 2006 and 2007 Triple Crown-winning campaigns.
A knee injury hampered his build-up to the 2007 Rugby World Cup but he regained full fitness and toured New Zealand and Australia last summer, starting both games.