Horan and Best’s return adds to Irish Six Nations options

THE return of Marcus Horan and Rory Best to international competition at the Recreation Ground, Bath, on Sunday (2pm) is a timely boost to Ireland’s hopes of another successful RBS Six Nations Championship.

Both front-row forwards are included in the Ireland A squad to take on England Saxons in a repeat of last year’s Churchill Cup final, and they will get what team manager Paul McNaughton described as “much needed and welcome game time”.

The availability of Best, following a neck operation early in September to correct a disc problem, is more unexpected than the availability of Horan with McNaughton remarking: “We really didn’t expect Rory would be back playing much before April; that was the original suggestion but he is ready to go, has been in full contact training and has some game time behind him now. This weekend will give him an opportunity to progress further, as it will Marcus.”

McNaughton pointed out that Horan now had 120 minutes of rugby behind him between club activity with Shannon and his successful return for Munster, for whom he had not played since October when diagnosed with a career-threatening heart condition.

“He is going across to get game time in and the same applies to Rory, who has had about 60 minutes in a club game last weekend,” he said.

Jerry Flannery will not participate in the A fixture as he sustained a bruised shoulder playing for Shannon at the weekend, but the manager believes he will be available for selection on the Irish team to meet Italy on Saturday week.

Flannery was unable to train with the extended Irish squad of 44 players for the last couple of days and another absentee was wing/centre Keith Earls (ill), but both are expected to join up with a reduced squad at the weekend to prepare for the Six Nations opener against Italy.

Even though Ian Humphreys has been included in the A squad, it’s unlikely he is being considered an option down the pecking order from Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton for the Six Nations.

According to manager McNaughton, it’s likely that Grand Slam winning centre Paddy Wallace could play at 10 for some of the game in Bath. Last season, Irish coach Declan Kidney had intimated that Wallace would take over from O’Gara in the event of mid-game injury.

Meanwhile, Irish defence coach Les Kiss has suggested Earls is the front-runner to fill the left wing vacancy created by the long-term injury suffered by Luke Fitzgerald, even though he is pleased with the form of a number of high-profile players this season, amongst them Andrew Trimble and Shane Horgan.

“Keith has done a good job and is probably the incumbent at the moment but Trimble’s form has been very good.

“However, with guys in such form it makes it a good challenge for us to pick the right team for that game. We also have to consider that a guy like Shane (Horgan) is in very good form as well. Overall, we have some options,” he said.

Kiss emphasised the importance of the A game in the greater scheme of things this season. “We have done a lot of preparation for the Six Nations, but first up is this game and we have to give it a lot of consideration,” he said.

Yet much more thought has been given to the Italian game and Kiss warned that they would not be underestimated at any level. “Some may say it’s a given but this game represents Italy’s 10th anniversary in the championship; they were quite impressive in their last couple of games in the November series so we have to make sure we have the little things in place to be able to nail that deal.”

* Worcester have signed Ireland flanker Neil Best from their Guinness Premiership rivals Northampton.

Best, 30, has agreed a two-year deal with the Warriors, with an option for a third year, and will move to Sixways in time for next season.

Best has won 18 caps and made more than 100 appearances for Ulster before joining Northampton in 2008.

IRELAND A (from): Backs. I. Dowling (Munster), D. Cave (Ulster), P. Wallace (Ulster), F. McFadden (Leinster), K. Matthews (Connacht), J. Murphy (Leicester Tigers), D. Hurley (Munster), I. Humphreys (Ulster), I. Boss (Ulster), P. Stringer (Munster).

Forwards. M. Horan (Munster), T. Buckley (Munster), M. Ross (Leinster), R. Best (Ulster), J. Fogarty (Leinster), R. Caldwell (Ulster), D. Toner (Leinster), M. O’Driscoll (Munster), N. Ronan (Munster), S. O’Brien (Leinster), J. Muldoon (Connacht), S. Jennings (Leinster).

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