by Brendan Cole
Several players hoping to improve their standing in the Ireland pecking order will get the chance to do so when the Wolfhounds take on a strong England Saxons side at The Sportsground tonight.
Ireland Wolfhounds v England Saxons is live on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie from 7:30pm
Unsurprisingly, despite the fact that a kite was flown at the announcement of the Ireland squad, Brian O’Driscoll is not named among the matchday squad, with Darren Cave set to start at outside centre.
But several others with aspirations of playing a part in the Six Nations proper will take the field in Galway.
Wingers Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald are two who will hope to impress, though with Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls also in the mix, both will need something special.
Trimble has lost and regained the trust of Irish selectors on several occasions through his career.
The Wales game would probably be ideal given the size and power in their backline, but even a good showing here may not be enough to force his way into the thinking for that one.
Fitzgerald has also attracted admirers and doubters in equal measure since bursting on the scene in 2006.
Still just 25 and not long into his comeback from injury, he may also have to wait a little longer for his opportunity at the top level.
Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy look the men of the moment after excellent showings in the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup.
Elsewhere in the backline, a pair of exciting young Connacht backs are given their chance to shine with Robbie Henshaw starting at full-back and Dave McSharry in the centre.
Henshaw is seen as a potential Ireland outside-centre of the future.
All three of Ireland’s top young out-half prospects could get a run with Paddy Jackson given the start and Ian Keatley and Ian Madigan occupying two bench spots.
Paul Marshall also get runs at scrum-half. The young Ulsterman has many admirers but will struggle to show he can offer more than Eoin Reddan, a more experienced player with similar attributes, or Conor Murray.
In the pack, loosehead is the most interesting call.
On his Heineken Cup form, Dave Kilcoyne is in the running for a place in what has become a genuine area of strength for Ireland.
But Cian Healy continues to be one of Europe’s best in the position while Tom Court has been excellent for Ulster this season.
But Kilcoyne’s displays have been eye-catching and with dynamic playmaking ever more important, he could yet win over a management that may just be becoming less conservative.
The match will also be a significant examination for recently imported tighthead Michael Bent.
He showed up reasonably well in his appearances for Ireland in November but has not always convinced at RaboDirect Pro12 level since.
Nick Wood is one of the smaller looseheads Bent will come up against and while that could be a challenge for the 6’4 New Zealander, a decent showing will go some way towards calming Irish nerves about the scrum.
Ulster’s Declan Fitzpatrick is also in the running for the backup spot behind Mike Ross and is among the subs.
In the second row and back row, Lewis Stevenson and Tommy O’Donnell are young players who give the impression there could be more improvement to come while Iain Henderson and Rhys Ruddock will also be hoping to press their claims for consideration off the bench.
Mike Sherry is another who is close enough to seeing Six Nations action given the rate of attrition at hooker.
Ireland look like they will have a tough task.
England send a relatively young squad with 26-year-old captain Jordan Crane among the veterans, but there is a sprinkling of experience in key positions with the likes of Paul Doran-Jones and Richard Wigglesworth picked at scrum-half and tighthead.
The rest of the pack has an obdurate look with power in the second row and a potential nuisance at openside in the shape of Saracens’ Will Fraser. Ireland’s back-row of O’Donnell, James Coughlan and Kevin McLaughlin looks like it will be stronger out of touch and carrying the ball than on the deck.
The most interesting selection in the backline is that of talented teenage Leicester out-half George Ford, son of former Ireland defence coach Mike.
The raw power of Harlequins inside-centre Jordan Turner-Hall is another big danger.
Ireland lost a tight game at Sandy Park in Exeter in this fixture last year.
If they are to reverse that, much will depend on the young Ulster half-backs, who have not always convinced as a pair. England’s power in the engine room of the pack and at centre, combined with greater skill and control at half-back, could see them nick a win.
Ireland Wolfhounds v England Saxons:
Ireland Wolfhounds: R Henshaw, A Trimble, D Cave, D McSharry, L Fitzgerald, P Jackson, P Marshall, D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, M Bent, L Stevenson, D Toner, K McLaughlin, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan (capt)
Replacements: D Varley, T Court, D Fitzpatrick, I Henderson, R Ruddock, I Boss, I Madigan, I Keatley
England Saxons: E Daly; C Wade, J Tomkins, J Turner-Hall, T Biggs; G Ford, R Wigglesworth; N Wood, J Gray, P Doran-Jones, G Kitchener, G Robson, G Kruis, W Fraser, J Crane (capt).