It may not be quite squeaky bum time for Ulster but it certainly is for Ireland. The latter looks likely to finish the Six Nations with a side showing significant changes to the one which started off so strongly against Wales.
The biggest difference between the provincial and international sides is that Ulster enjoys the luxury of a major cushion in the RaboDirect and a reasonable amount of time to try to get its wounded warriors back off the physio bench and on the pitch for the Heineken Cup quarterfinal. Ireland’s challenge is much more immediate — it is now.
The quality of rugby in the Six Nations can often leave a lot to be desired, but it is the drama and sub-plots coming into particular matches that make it such an intriguing tournament.
The bagpipes will be out in force and the Scots will be licking their lips and planning one heck of a warm welcome for what they will perceive as an Irish team not on the ropes but weakened, unsettled and potentially vulnerable.
The carrot is substantial — a victory would transform Scotland’s Six Nations campaign and fuel self-confidence already bolstered by an emphatic win over Italy.
Knowing Declan Kidney there will be no panic but in private he will understand that it is all hands to the pump. One would imagine that there will be a few extra meetings this week to allow new players and combinations to get to know each other better and try to get settled into a comfortable level of mutual understanding. Have no doubt — this is a major test for Declan Kidney and his players.
From Ulster’s victory last Friday night, there was one performance that sent out a screaming message, ‘Me Sir, pick me Sir’.
It came from Darren Cave who was exceptional in terms of his creative contribution in attack and assured, confident decisions in defence.
Cave has superb skills both in and post-contact and looks instinctively to offload the ball. He has an acute sense of being in the right place at the right time making the right decisions.
This shows up most of all in his defence. Invariably, he reads the play exactly right and chooses when to drift, come straight up on his man or hit in and close the corner by pushing up ahead of his inside defenders to force the ball back inside.
This is the one key area that sets him apart from Keith Earls who has been shown to lack the defensive nous to fill the outside channel as well as it needs to be filled.
In short, while Earls’ strengths are shown more on the wing, Cave is a natural outside centre and is currently a real candidate to take over from BOD when he chooses to retire.
Cave has not quite received the credit that he deserves. Maybe it is because there is a certain effortless quality to his running and sleight of hand.
Maybe it has something to do with his rather loping and deceptive running style.
He may not ooze the same raw aggression as Brian O’Driscoll, but there is no lack of physicality. Yet, does he have that out and out ‘dog’ that is so often needed these days in international rugby in the centre position?
Or does he have the out and out pace? You don’t see too many outside breaks any more but there will always be a day for an offload and this is a key strength of his game.
But maybe I’ve identified Cave’s biggest issue, namely Brian O’Driscoll. The legend continues and BOD is still one of the first names down on Declan Kidney’s teamsheet. It is difficult to see someone else wresting that green number thirteen shirt from him until he decides.
So, Cave may have to bide his time before he gets a proper chance, but I have not seen any better players ready to take it on. Cave is a natural 13 and there are few of those around in Irish rugby at the moment.
At this moment, far more likely is that Luke Marshall will come into the reckoning with an early chance at stating his own case for that other treasured jersey — Gordon Darcy’s number twelve shirt. Who knows — from the form that both have shown this season there is a possibility that Ireland’s future centre partnership will have a red hand stamped on it.