McGahan faces dilemma as Munster stars get Ireland’s call

MUNSTER coach Tony McGahan must feel like a man trying to play poker with the aces removed from the deck this morning, following yesterday’s selection of the Ireland team to play New Zealand on Saturday.

As expected, Irish supremo Declan Kidney has done his former employers Munster few favours ahead of their historic clash with the All Blacks next Tuesday, naming 11 Munster men in the Ireland 22 for the Croke Park showdown.

While McGahan knew he was certain to lose front-line players such as Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, the selection of three Munster players — front-rowers Tony Buckley and Jerry Flannery, plus sensational utility back Keith Earls — on the bench may provide the biggest headache.

An IRFU spokesperson yesterday said a decision on whether that trio — or any of the substitutes — will be released back to their provinces will not be made until after Saturday’s game.

This will depend heavily on how much game-time each player sees, plus any knocks picked up within the squad, and with vital world ranking points on offer, it’s no surprise the Irish management have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

McGahan is therefore likely to plan without the trio — for now, at least — and the cancellations of friendlies against the A teams of Connacht and Harlequins can’t have helped. The majority of his squad hasn’t seen action since October 25.

In any case, Freddie Pucciariello’s versatility means he can fill in at either tighthead or loosehead, with Frankie Sheahan likely to be preferred to Denis Fogarty at hooker.

However, the lack of top-level game time for either Darragh Hurley or Tim Ryan poses McGahan a problem for the remaining front-row slot.

The second row is more clear-cut, with Mick O’Driscoll — the leading candidate for the captaincy — and Donnacha Ryan the obvious picks.

Number eight Denis Leamy, recently recovered from shoulder reconstruction surgery, is likely to be flanked by openside Niall Ronan, with John O’Sullivan the favourite to edge out James Coughlan at blindside.

Peter Stringer’s omission from the Ireland 22 will surely see him handed Munster’s number nine shirt, but McGahan has another tight call to make at out-half. Paul Warwick will start one way or another; but whether he will wear 10 or 15 depends on whether McGahan brings in Jeremy Manning at out-half, or Denis Hurley at full-back.

That equation has another variable in the form of wing Doug Howlett, who could be moved to full-back to accommodate Anthony Horgan on the wing, relegating both Manning and Hurley to the sidelines.

Mercifully for McGahan, things are far more straightforward in midfield, where Kiwis Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki are set to be reunited after the latter missed the Heineken Cup victory over Sale Sharks through injury.

Ian Dowling is a certainty for the last wing berth. Whether McGahan finds room in his first XV for versatile back Barry Murphy remains to be seen.

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