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6 Nations: Rory Best will fly the flag for Ulster

By Niall Crozier

The 34-man squad from which the starters and replacements will be chosen for the opening two rounds of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations Championship includes eight Ulster players.

And while that's a healthier representation than on other occasions in the not too distant past, let's not overdo the gratitude thing – Leinster have 18 in the group, although Ulster are the form team in Europe having posted six straight wins en route to the mantle of number one seeds in the Heineken Cup.

The members of the Ulster octet currently encamped at Carton House, Ireland's Kildare headquarters, are Rory Best, Darren Cave, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Andrew Trimble and Dan Tuohy. They are listed in alphabetical order, incidentally, so don't waste time looking for anything more cryptic.

How many of them are likely to feature in the match-day 23 for Sunday's opener against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium? Um.

In view of the competition for places, training ground casualties may arise.

Big, strong, proud, highly motivated men with points to prove will not be holding back. Fingers crossed, then, that they come through unscathed and intact.

Best is the one Ulster player of whom I am wholly confident. Barring injury, he will be the hooker this Sunday.

Henry at seven is likely and certainly I feel his presence alongside Munster's Peter O'Mahony and Leinster's Jamie Heaslip at six and eight respectively would give Ireland a back row that ticks more boxes than any of the other possible permutations.

In the absence of Stephen Ferris, whose most recent international outing was against England in the 2012 St Patrick's Day massacre at Twickenham, O'Mahony has come through as a good blindside, albeit that he does not have the sheer power of the rampaging Ulsterman at his best.

Ferris, in his prime, intimidated opponents by virtue of the threat he posed and their realisation that he could not be halted.

Similarly, Henry (pictured) does not possess Sean O'Brien's ability to burst through opposition ranks. Which is why I fear for him slightly, because if Ireland coach Joe Schmidt decides he wants a player in the O'Brien mould, then Munster's Tommy O'Donnell fits the bill.

Where Henry scores heavily is in his outstanding 'choke tackle' technique and ability to disrupt opposing sides at the breakdown. And while he is not an O'Brien-like ball-carrier, his ability in those areas means Heaslip is freed up to do that job.

I don't think 22-year-old Henderson will start against Scotland because skipper Paul O'Connell's second row partner will be Devin Toner. Why would it be otherwise? That was the pairing that did so well in Ireland's last outing – that November epic against the All Blacks.

Because he can cover lock and flanker, Henderson is perfectly suited to the bench at this stage.

And on the theme of adaptability, Cave's worth to Ireland doubled at the weekend when he played for the Wolfhounds. Up until now he has been an outside-centre – Brian O'Driscoll's position, with Cave's five caps since 2009 confirming the fact that he was never going to add to his tally while the great man was there.

But against England Saxons – with Schmidt watching on intently – Cave, at 12, was outstanding in the Wolfhounds defence. That puts him in with a chance of landing a job as a midfield replacement, with his cause also boosted by his excellent form in this season's Heineken Cup.

Conversely, Jackson could miss out because he is a one-position-player. In modern rugby, the man who can do two – or even three – jobs trumps the one who cannot.

That is why Ian Madigan, not Jackson, was on the bench for Ireland's Guinness Series matches against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand. And even though Jackson – whose game at 10 has come on leaps and bounds – started against Samoa, he got one autumnal cap to Madigan's three. His rival can play stand-off, centre and even full-back, note.

Luke Marshall is in the same boat, for although he lined out alongside O'Driscoll against Australia, it was Gordon D'Arcy who got the nod for the Samoan and All Blacks matches, with the Ulsterman nudged out of the 23.

Trimble and Tuohy are playing catch-up. Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney each enjoy a significant advantage over Trimble, having worked with Schmidt in his previous role as Leinster coach. In addition the Ulsterman played no part in the autumn internationals.

Tuohy? O'Connell, Toner and Henderson bar his path to an eighth cap and a first in the Six Nations.

So best case scenario for the Ulster contingent?

Best and Henry to start, with Henderson and – an outside bet – Cave on the bench.

Belfast Telegraph

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