Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Eddie brings out big guns for Bayonne

In a bid to give his first choice team as much game time as possible before the Rugby World Cup, Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan has selected the strongest side possible for tonight's match against French Top 14 club, Bayonne.

The only changes from the 15 that finished the Six Nations on a momentous St Patrick's Day in Rome are the inclusion of Ulster pair Andrew Trimble and Neil Best, standing in for the injured Shane Horgan and David Wallace respectively.

Horgan will be out of action for four weeks since injuring knee ligaments in the warm-up before the Scotland game last Saturday, while Wallace is still struggling to shake off an ankle injury.

It's a brave selection by O'Sullivan, who no doubt was alarmed by the rather indifferent performances of some of his biggest names against Scotland, in their first taste of competitive action for over four months.

If Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell - the greatest players of this and arguably any other Irish generation - could look so rusty in Edinburgh, what could be expected from the other first-choicers similarly starved of game time?

The desire to banish the memories of Murrayfield and build momentum for September seems to have won over the alternative argument, which is that risking your most valuable players this close to the most important tournament of their careers is suicidal, especially for a squad that famously lacks real depth.

About two-thirds of Eddie's first team are irreplaceable at the highest level, this summer's tour of Argentina proved that.

But the worst injury picked up in Edinburgh happened in the warm-up: if your luck is out, your luck is out, no matter how carefully you manage your star performers.

The news that a full-strength Ireland side will be on display just a month before they meet France in Paris in a World Cup group game will shift the last few tickets available at the 15,000 capacity Stade Jean Dauger.

It's a great week for the Bayonne club, as they also welcome Phillipe Saint Andre's Sale for a match on Sunday evening.

The Bayonne side contains a few familiar names, especially in the backs, certainly enough to give Ireland a thorough examination.

In the centre, Richard Dourthe and Xavier Garbajosa have over 60 French caps between them and will know all about the twin talents of Messrs O'Driscoll and D'Arcy, while the recently returned former Sale player Daniel Larrechea lines out at full-back for his home club.

Cocooned and exhausted in their training base in Capbreton, a small but beautiful seaside town just over 15 miles from Bayonne, any of the Ireland players who haven't been in this part of France before will be blissfully unaware of just how seriously the locals take their rugby, and how desperately they will be baying for an international scalp.

The fact that there are two French Top 14 clubs - Bayonne and Biarritz - within six miles of each other, should give the visitors a clue.

The ancient narrow streets of Bayonne were pounded last week by the almighty din created by the five day 'Fetes de Bayonne', the town's annual raucous, highly-charged celebration of Basque culture.

And last night the latest in a series of Basque 'corridas' saw the locals roar on the tormenting and eventual spearing of a few unfortunate bulls. Ireland can expect similar noise and blood lust tonight.

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