Marshall and Henry set for All Blacks challenge
The Ireland door has opened for Ulster duo Paul Marshall and Chris Henry.
Both men have been added to the Ireland squad for the three-match Test series in New Zealand.
Henry, who is included after recovering from an ankle injury, had a quiet game against the Barbarians but has enjoyed a superb campaign for Ulster and carries the benefit of being able to cover all three back-row positions.
Scrum-half Marshall is a beneficiary of Isaac Boss’s injury and the lively Ulster No 9 is there to provide cover if anything happens to Eoin Reddan or Conor Murray but should benefit hugely from the experience.
Paul O'Connell remains a doubt because of a knee injury so Connacht's Mike McCarthy is added as cover. Uncapped Connacht props Brett Wilkinson and Ronan Loughney are also included amid doubts over Mike Ross' fitness.
A final decision on O'Connell's fitness will be made tomorrow.
Ireland will play the world champions in Auckland on June 9, with Tests in Christchurch and Hamilton to follow on June 16 and 23.
It is safe to assume that the All Blacks or any of their supporters, will not exactly be quailing at the prospect of taking on this group — although there are very few international squads that would cause the world champions to fret ahead of a home Test series.
They will undoubtedly acknowledge beacons of quality like Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien but will know very little about the majority of names selected, and care less. Given the
persistent injury problems he has had to cope with, and the continuing issue of finding sufficient game time for Ireland hopefuls, the Ireland coach Declan Kidney has done as well as could be expected in bringing this group together.
The complexity of the problem is emphasised by the on-going problems at prop. The desperate search for quality back-up to Cian Healy and Ross has seen Kidney turned to three uncapped players, Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney and Declan Fitzpatrick, with little Heineken Cup exposure.
The ideal situation for Kidney would be to have access to props starting regularly in big Heineken Cup matches.
Instead, he is faced with a situation where Munster’s first choice props are the South African duo of Wian Du Preez and BJ Botha while Ulster harbour the world-class All Black John Afoa at tight-head who, as if to emphasise Irish rugby’s most pressing problem, gave Willkinson a thorough grilling when playing for the Barbarians against Ireland on Tuesday night.
The national side is also labouring under the constant, unfavourable comparisons with the provinces, who provided the two Heineken Cup finalists this year and, in Leinster’s case, played a brand of rugby that proved the envy of Europe.
The Ireland coach is well versed in the provincial requirements from his two stints with Munster and one with Leinster and one of the greatest challenges he has faced since taking over the national side is adjusting to not having regular access to his players.
However, in this Kidney is no different to any national coach and the key now is to turn limited preparation into consistent performance, as Warren Gatland has managed with Wales and Kidney himself did in 2009.