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Ian Madigan has earned the chance to test himself on big stage against Wallabies

By Tony Ward

The object of the exercise was to widen the squad and in that it was mission accomplished against Georgia.

There were minor blemishes, chiefly in terms of precision and accuracy in finishing, but the overall objective of the mid-series match, by far the least demanding of the three, represented a job done.

Quite how much relevance it has to what lies ahead in four days' time we will know when Joe Schmidt reveals his strongest 23 of the autumn series in Carton House on Thursday.

There are issues surrounding hooker, openside flanker and both centre positions, but first let us deal with the Georgian challenge for what it was. As a rugby-playing nation, still developing at the highest level, they are what it says on the tin.

They can maul efficiently and scrap for possession equally effectively up front but when it comes to testing the opposition anywhere beyond speculative use of the boot, quick-won possession is something of a liability.

Between now and the World Cup kick-off, it is difficult to envisage any one of the Six Nations matches, or indeed any of the extras against Scotland, Wales and England, offering even a modicum of opportunity for Schmidt to experiment and look beyond the tried and trusted as he did on Sunday.

So what did he see? For starters, a front-row in which both props - we'll park the scrummaging - Dave Kilcoyne and Rodney Ah You were devastating with ball in hand in the loose. On the assumption Greg Feek can fine-tune the technical bits, the potential wrecking-ball ability over and above Cian Healy and Jack McGrath is awesome.

In between them, with Rory Best set to return and Richardt Strauss building on game time, Sean Cronin is the number one based on fitness and current form. The pecking order may be Best, Strauss and Cronin but the latter's effectiveness of late demands consideration as first choice to face the Wallabies.

In the second-row, both Dave Foley and Mike McCarthy delivered but Foley, the official man of the match, brought with him that raw Donnacha Ryan-type edge that makes him different in my book. Good enough to see him in from the off on Saturday? No. But as an impact replacement, yes.

In the back-row all four (including Robin Copeland) did well but to face the Wallabies the absence of Chris Henry will be felt. Rhys Ruddock will be an able back-row deputy. Peter O'Mahony could cover the breakaway, leaving Ruddock at blindside.

The halves pick themselves but not before acknowledging the outside-half tour de force witnessed against the Georgians. Ian Madigan wasn't just good, he was exceptional.

It was Madigan's most complete performance in green and further strengthens the case of a rugby player too good to leave out. Schmidt has already supported my take on interchangeability in midfield. So on the assumption Jared Payne is ruled out, take your pick between Gordon D'Arcy at 12 and Robbie Henshaw wearing 13 or Henshaw at 12 and Stuart Olding one slot out, better still Madigan wearing 12 with Henshaw 13.

Beyond that, Craig Gilroy and Felix Jones both delivered on maturity and work ethic while Ian Keatley and Olding looked right at home.

Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo will make up the back three while the only real call for Schmidt and Les Kiss in this department is whether it is Jones covering as utility back beyond the halves.

Belfast Telegraph

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