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Changing of the guard gives McCloskey and Payne chance to shine

By Tony Ward

Published 02/02/2016

In form: Jared Payne and Stuart McCloskey (far left) have been impressing for Ulster and may have big roles to play in the Six Nations
In form: Jared Payne and Stuart McCloskey (far left) have been impressing for Ulster and may have big roles to play in the Six Nations

The gap between the hemispheres may be widening, and almost all recent evidence suggests it is so, but with respect to the somewhat arrogantly named Rugby Championship, the northern hemisphere equivalent has some ingredients rugby brethren south of the zero line can only dream about.

In terms of passion, cultural exchange, tribalism, atmosphere and yes 'the craic', each and every Six Nations game delivers in spades. It is a special tournament at a special time of the year.

Is the Rugby Championship more skilful? Unequivocally yes. Is it more entertaining? Again I suspect most in this neck of the woods would hold their hands up and admit yes.

But is it a better tournament?

Like beauty I guess the answer to that lies in the eye of the beholder. Press me for a definitive view and metaphorically speaking I swing both ways.

I look forward to those early Saturday mornings in summer on TV when the current big four (as in World Cup semi-finalists) lock horns in the Rugby Championship.

And yet come this week across Europe there is something special in the air whether it is Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Paris or Rome the first ports of call.

That air of eager anticipation is tangible despite the best efforts of TV moguls to massacre the tournament by way of Friday evening/Sunday afternoon kick-offs.

And despite the feeble defence regarding the home and away breakdown, there is certainly still room for a bonus point system.

If the Rugby Championship stands indicted on the accusation of arrogance vis a vis naming then so too the Six Nations in terms of how it sees itself.

Les Kiss said to me after last year's final-day extravaganza that what transpired, though riveting in every way, was unreal in a Six Nations context. I echo those sentiments but of course would dearly love to be proved wrong.

My hope is that what we witnessed in the UK over six fantastic weeks back in September/October will see the best of southern hemisphere ambition transformed (not least through new coaching regimes in France and England) to the tournament that could and should be second only to the World Cup itself.

But back to matters immediate and the visit of Warren Gatland and Wales to Dublin on Sunday. Watch for the charm offensive over the next few days as Joe Schmidt and his players look to out-score Gatty in the best compliment game.

In truth it is a period of great insecurity as coaches and players jockey for position with little idea what to expect of themselves or of each other. It is particularly so on the back of a World Cup when change on the field and off is at its most rampant.

From an Irish perspective retirement and injury have added to the early selection conundrum. No Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Cian Healy or Mike Ross makes structural change inevitable. These are all players who have been pillars of our side.

So where to from here?

As one who never advocates change for the sake of change, let me start with Ulster's Stuart McCloskey. McCloskey warrants a place in the starting XV on the basis of form.

Even in the Gordon D'Arcy/Brian O'Driscoll years we longed for a centre of the McCloskey ilk - one who could take the ball up and provide gain-line breaking momentum a la Jamie Roberts or Mathieu Bastareaud, but even better than that one blessed with the fine skills to off-load.

Of course we don't know if McCloskey can replicate what he has been doing so effectively for Ulster but there's only one way to find out.

I urge the main man to go with his gut and give the Robbie Henshaw/McCloskey pairing a run. Yes they are up against a tried and trusted Lions Test combination in Roberts and Jonathan Davies but it is a home game, what better setting for a maiden voyage?

If McCloskey gets the green light, then the case for Ulster team-mate Jared Payne at full-back couldn't be stronger. I don't believe Rob Kearney's best days are behind him (he's still only 29 and class is permanent) but on form Payne should be in pole position.

Beyond that and again with form the main criterion I would have another Ulsterman, Andrew Trimble, back on the right (and not just to chase Conor Murray's box-kicks).

Keith Earls will probably play on the left, with Dave Kearney, given doubt about Luke Fitzgerald, next in line.

Here I part ways with the head coach in terms of wing selection and I bow to it being his specialist position in his playing day.

Both Fitzgerald and Simon Zebo are naturally left-sided players, thereby bringing a better attacking balance to that flank. Zebo can be his own worst enemy in terms of attitude and perception but he has that attacking 'X' factor.

Murray (still nowhere near his best) and Jonathan Sexton (hopefully back to full fitness) will be the halves but with Paddy Jackson on standby to start, yet out of the 23 all together if Sexton is cleared, with Ian Madigan rightly selected as the impact replacement utility back.

In the absence of Healy and Ross I would go with a front-row of Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Nathan White.

Rhys Ruddock makes for a very real second-row alternative but I suspect it will be either Donnacha Ryan (if fit) or Mike McCarthy (back to form of late) to partner Devin Toner in the second-row.

Apart from the qualification principle (which I abhor) I would have no problem with CJ Stander starting at No.6 but again working on the 23-man dynamic - Sean O'Brien at blindside with Tommy O'Donnell on the open is another alternative - I would have Ruddock, O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip at six, seven and eight.

Belfast Telegraph

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