Plenty to play for in Six Nations audition

Gone are the days when these A internationals were mere consolation prizes for those who missed out on Test caps. Tonight’s clash of Irish Wolfhounds and English Saxons at Musgrave Park represents a full-blown RBS 6 Nations audition, writes Simon Lewis.

Plenty to play for in Six Nations audition

Ireland Wolfhounds coach Dan McFarland during squad training at Carton House. Picture: Stephen McCarthy

Plenty to play for in Six Nations audition

The preparation for the Wolfhounds week is very much about providing a platform for the players to be able to launch into the Six Nations

An Irish team containing 14 Test-capped players will face an English second string described by national head coach Stuart Lancaster as “the strongest ever put out”. Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will use the game as a much-needed opportunity to give some experienced front-liners, led by powerhouse Sean O’Brien, valuable, high-intensity minutes as they return from enforced absences.

Lancaster, on the other hand, will want to run the rule over a raft of players knocking on the door of Test and World Cup squad selection with England burdened by an uncomfortably long injury list.

O’Brien has not played since the opening day of the season on September 6 after which he returned to the treatment table to rehabilitate a shoulder injury which had become infected following surgery.

With Ireland definitely missing Chris Henry and Rhys Ruddock, the incumbents during the 2014 Six Nations and November internationals respectively, O’Brien’s comeback will be closely scrutinised in Cork as Schmidt prepares to pare down his squad for the opening championship encounter in Rome in eight days. It’s not just O’Brien either, with loosehead prop Jack McGrath returning from a three-week suspension, tighthead Mike Ross overlooked by Leinster over the last fortnight, and several more continuing their returns from long-term injury in a bid to be considered for the trip to Italy.

Wolfhounds head coach Dan McFarland acknowledged as much yesterday after announcing a team captained by Munster full-back Felix Jones and including Jack Conan at No.8, the only uncapped player in the starting XV. There are also places for returnees Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden in the backline as well as a fly-half, Ian Madigan, greatly in need of game time at his designated position.

“That’s more or less how it works because although I’m the head coach, the preparation for the Wolfhounds week is very much about providing a platform for the players to be able to launch into the Six Nations,” McFarland said. “While the game in itself is clearly important based on the quality put out on the field, there’s also a need to ensure that the players get enough game-time going into the Six Nations, as is the same with selection.”

As for O’Brien and Ross, Connacht forwards coach McFarland, who also coached Emerging Ireland over the summer, said: “They look in terrific condition, both physically and mentally. Training is training, but they do look in terrific condition. Sean has a bounce in his step and a fire in him that really drives training. He’s one of those individuals, myself and Eric (Elwood) were lucky enough to coach him at Under-20s back in 2007 and he was the same then. Unfortunately, he didn’t play in as many games as we’d have liked but he was the same within the squad then as he is now.”

Madigan will be acutely aware of what is required of him by the management as Ireland prepare to face Italy without first-choice fly-half Johnny Sexton, who is expected to be cleared to resume contact training ahead of the second game against France following a 12-week concussion-related lay-off. With Ulster’s Paddy Jackson also ruled out, this is Madigan’s chance to nail down the 10 jersey ahead of Ian Keatley.

Schmidt will also benefit from the disappointment his first-choice tighthead Ross has experienced in the last couple of weeks having been left out of Leinster’s European games against Castres and Wasps.

“They are always tough decisions and I know that Mike was disappointed and Marty (Moore) was delighted,” Schmidt said. “That is the nature of the strength in depth that Leinster have that they can have those two fighting out the starting berth and then either way have Tadgh Furlong and his ability to add a bit of energy off the bench. I guess Mike is one of the guys who needs a bit of game time.”

The Saxons squad coached by Jon Callard and overseen by Lancaster will arrive in Cork joined by a battery of English media eager to witness the progress of Rugby League convert Sam Burgess as he pulls on an England jersey for the first time after just five games for Bath. Burgess, who many see as the antidote to an underwhelming England midfield sorely missing the injured Manu Tuilagi, joins an exciting Saxons backline that includes captain Lee Dickson at scrum-half, Henry Slade at fly-half and Elliot Daly, Marland Yarde and Chris Ashton in the three-quarters.

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