by Brendan Cole
Everyone has their own opinion on this, and with Declan Kidney doing the picking don't discount a surprise or two. However, his thought process may go something like this.......
Full-Back: Girvan Dempsey, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy.
Favourite to start is Kearney, who has been flawless for much of the season from full-back, demonstrating both an excellent counter-attacking capability and brilliant kicking off his left foot. Dempsey has dropped down the pecking order at Leinster, while with France first up, Geordan Murphy must be seen as an outsider. Possible bench claims due to his ability to play on the wing; is also undoubtedly a potential game changer.
The pick? Kearney. Superb skills and improved decision making mean he is the best at turning the momentum around from full-back.
Wing: Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan.
Very tough to call. Shane Horgan has experience and thanks to his physique presents a real problem for the opposition at International level. Had a poor first half of the season with Leinster, but has looked sharper since Christmas. Keith Earls, who could potentially take a place in any outside backs role, had a storming start to the season and on pure talent for running with the ball would be hard to beat. Fitzgerald has seen a stint at centre come to an end for Leinster and has looked happier out on the wing. Would bring a brilliant sidestep and invention to the team. Bowe is an all-rounder with pace and power. Has done very well up to Heineken Cup level, but past high-profile mistakes at International level could hinder his claims.
The picks? Keith Earls and Shane Horgan. A tough call but Earls' athleticism and Horgan's international pedigree may count.
Centre: Brian O'Driscoll, Paddy Wallace, Gordon D'Arcy.
O'Driscoll is a cert to be picked but the other selection depends to an extent on the role the captain will play. If he is picked as a pure '13', we may well see natural inside centre Paddy Wallace play. Wallace is an excellent attacker and has improved his tackling and defence since Matt Williams took on the Ulster coaching role.
Gordon D'Arcy is short on game time having had just a few starts on the wing for Leinster since last year, which must count against him. It might also enter Kidney's thinking that while O'Driscoll/D'Arcy was seen as a classic combination, it really fired rarely enough against top class opposition. Both play in a similar style, and both have had their best days as outside-centres with natural 12s alongside. Finally, if O'Driscoll is prepared to play in a more inside centre style, Keith Earls may also be a live contender here.
The picks? Tough call, but O'Driscoll and Wallace could open the Championship at 13 and 12.
Out-half: Ronan O'Gara.
Paddy Wallace will be the back-up, whether from on the field at 12 or the bench, but O'Gara is a guaranteed starter. No bad thing really.
The pick: Ronan O'Gara. The only contender.
Scrum-half: Tomás O'Leary, Peter Stringer.
This is a straight call between O'Leary's ability to do the basics well and also contribute in other areas around the field and Stringer's ability to possibly get a higher tempo going. O'Leary probably has the more rounded game and skillset, and has been more consistent for Munster.
The pick? O'Leary will probably get the starting jersey, with Stringer's ability to up the pace held in reserve.
Hooker: Rory Best, Jerry Flannery
Best has been in great form for Ulster this year, leading a revival in their fortunes from the front. Though he is in a dominant Munster team, Flannery's form has been slightly more patchy. The once flawless lineout throwing has dipped a little – not helped by the timing of the whole unit being frequently off at Munster. That said, his workrate has been sky-high. Both can do a good job for Ireland.
The pick? Best, spoken of as a senior player in the press this week, may get the nod.
Prop: Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Tom Court
Hayes and Horan have a wealth of experience and are almost never properly nailed in scrums by anyone these days. Court can cover both sides, and has impressed for Ulster – definitely the man for the future.
The picks? Will be the Munster pair.
Second-Row: Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell, Malcolm O'Kelly.
Again, not much debate here. Some had called for Ryan Caldwell to get a start but with the Ulsterman not even in the expanded squad of 27, the Munster duo of O'Connell and O'Callaghan will start. If O'Kelly gets a bench spot – though Kidney may opt for Mick O'Driscoll's ability to cover across the back five in the scrum over him – he will hope to add to his already vast caps tally, which currently stands at an Irish record 91.
The picks? O'Connell and O'Callaghan are in pole position.
Back-Row? Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Denis Leamy, Mick O'Driscoll, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace
Always contentious and it looks like being that way again this year. Shane Jennings has been cut from the squad meaning the proponents of a 'true' openside will have little to cling to. In truth, David Wallace has played the rugby of his life from seven for Munster in the past month or so and must be a certainty.
After that, it gets a little tougher to call. Stephen Ferris is the form six in the country and must have very strong claims, though he must show he can blend in with this Munster dominated pack.
At number eight it's between Jamie Heaslip and Denis Leamy. Heaslip is superior in open field situations and, arguably, on the deck but for smash factor and sheer muscle at the coalface, Leamy has the edge. Leamy has been coming back from injury – and due to his bulk it's been a slow enough process – but may offer more of what Kidney is after. Again, a tough call.
Alan Quinlan's still has lots of great qualities but his form has not quite been up to what it was in 2008 in the last couple of months while Mick O'Driscoll can at best hope for a 'utility forward' bench role. Could Heaslip also be used as second row cover?
The picks? Ferris, Wallace, Leamy (6, 7, 8) looks the most powerful combination.
Brendan Cole's Possible Ireland XV:
12. P. Wallace
7. D. Wallace