ALL EYES WILL be on the number 13 jersey when Declan Kidney names his 22-man squad for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales this Sunday.
For much of the last 10 years, the first name on the Irish team-sheet has been that of Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland’s captain and midfield general. Though his decision to have shoulder surgery and sit out the spring gave Kidney plenty of time to draw up a contingency plan and appoint Paul O’Connell as the new commander-in-chief, a sizable BOD-shaped hole remains at outside centre.
Noises from the squad’s training camp in Maynooth yesterday suggested that Keith Earls is most likely to to fill O’Driscoll’s shoes when Kidney and his backroom team announce the matchday panel at lunchtime this afternoon.
Fergus McFadden — who has partnered Gordon D’Arcy at outside centre on a number of occasions for Leinster this season — remains a viable alternative, but the likelihood of Kidney springing any leftfield surprises was downplayed by his assistant Mark Tainton yesterday.
“Whoever it may be would have been playing in that position this season for his province, or for his club,” Tainton said, “so he doesn’t need to do anything different from what he’s doing.”
On the wings, Andrew Trimble’s recent form looks to have won him a starting berth opposite Tommy Bowe while the out-half pendulum appears to have swung again in Jonny Sexton’s favour. The Leinster out-half is expected to partner Conor Murray in the half-back line, with Ronan O’Gara and Eoin Reddan adding reinforcement from the bench.
Kidney has almost a full complement to choose from in the pack, and it would be a surprise to see a front trio including anyone but Healy, Best and Ross — or a back row that did not feature Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip for that matter.
On the face of it, the only place in the pack which truly appears to be up for grabs is in the second row alongside captain O’Connell. For years, Donncha O’Callaghan has made his name as part of a celebrated double act, but he has found himself edged out of the Munster set-up by the younger legs of Donnacha Ryan of late.
Ulster’s Dan Touhy impressed for the Ireland Wolfhounds last weekend and is a prime contender if Kidney chooses to blood some new talent, but he may have to content himself with a place on the replacements bench at best.
IRELAND (probable team): Kearney; Bowe, Earls, D’Arcy, Trimble; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross; Ryan, O’Connell; Ferris, O’Brien, Heaslip.