Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Ireland turn to Ulster's famous five

Ulster's Paddy Jackson
Ulster's Paddy Jackson
Luke Marshall
Tom Court
Rory Best
Craig Gilroy

Wednesday's Irish team announcement was reminiscent of the 1980s and the days when Ulster boasted a healthy representation on the international stage.

For Jimmy McCoy, Willie Anderson, Phil Matthews, Nigel Carr, David Irwin, Trevor Ringland and Keith Crossan read Tom Court, Rory Best, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Declan Fitzpatrick and Iain Henderson.

The Ireland team to face Scotland on Sunday at Murrayfield features five Ulster players in the starting XV and two more on the bench.

Fate has decreed that with coach Declan Kidney's neck on the IRFU block, finally he finds himself dependent on players from the northern province to save him. Ironic? Just a bit.

In Ireland's opening two fixtures of this term's RBS 6 Nations Championship, against Wales and England, Kidney included only Best and Gilroy as starters, with Fitzpatrick and now-injured Chris Henry among the replacements.

Among Ulster supporters there was a sense of injustice. Their not-unreasonable question was why the PRO12 leaders and Heineken Cup Pool 4 winners had such a meagre representation in comparison to the Leinster and four Munster representatives who started those matches, to say nothing of two and four respectively on the bench?

At this juncture one can only speculate as to what extent Kidney's hand has been forced by circumstances. Had Leinster pair Jonny Sexton and Gordon D'Arcy not been injured, would Jackson and Marshall be making their debuts this Sunday in Edinburgh? Improbable.

And had Cian Healy been available rather than suspended for his use of the boot on England's Dan Cole, Court most assuredly would not be packing down on the loose-head side against the Scots.

What is significant in his case, however, is that he has queue-jumped Munster rival Dave Kilcoyne who was the loose-head replacement against the Welsh and the English. That being the case, he was the logical choice to deputise in Healy's absence.

But to his credit in this instance, Kidney called it differently – and correctly – by rewarding Court for his outstanding form in the Ulster number one shirt. He is a better scrummager than Kilcoyne and his play in the loose this season has been hugely impressive.

In the wake of Healy's citing and amidst speculation that Court was in line for a recall to the match-day 23, the burly prop said: "I still think I'm good enough to be playing there and if I get another opportunity then I'm definitely not going to let it slip."

Sunday will provide the chance he wanted so badly.

The selection having been made, at this stage the reasons for Ulster's much-improved representation are neither here nor there. The die is cast; what matters now is what the Ravenhill-based men bring to the party.

In keeping with his name, Best, quite simply, is the best hooker in Ireland. This week saw Glasgow Warriors' coach and former Scotland and Lions fly-half Gregor Townsend single him out as the best post-breakdown player and tackle-making forward in the business. That's quite a compliment.

With 64 international caps to his credit – an Irish record – he is one of the side's senior players whose opinion among his team-mates and the coaching staff is much-valued. Best is a leader and a man whose example inspires others.

The new kids on the block –and remarkably, with three caps to his credit, Gilroy no longer qualifies – are Jackson and Marshall. Both are 21 and their inclusion alongside one another enables them to transfer their Ulster partnership to the international arena.

Although Jackson has forfeited the role of Ulster's goal-kicker to South African Ruan Pienaar, Kidney has entrusted him with the job. The young stand-off's inclusion ahead of Ronan O'Gara is a huge call.

But Jackson showed no sign of nerves at yesterday's media session, instead insisting that he is really looking forward to his debut and the challenge.

Defensively he is better than the veteran O'Gara and provided he gets his kicking game right – out of hand as well as off the tee – he can make a huge case for himself.

Marshall's meet-the-press performance at Carton House was remarkably relaxed. Hard, fast, strong and direct – but highly skilled, too, by virtue of great feet and equally good hands – his midfield partnership alongside Brian O'Driscoll really could be something to savour, albeit that it cannot last long in view of the Leinster superstar's age.

Fitzpatrick's continuation as the back-up to Mike Ross at tight-head confirms his status in the pecking order while the inclusion of Henderson – who turns 21 today – underlines his emergence as a superb forward prospect capable of covering the second and back rows.

Bearing in mind that Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Henry were unavailable through injury, Ulster's role in Ireland's future looks rosy.

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