Ulster were given a huge boost yesterday ahead of tomorrow’s daunting Heineken Cup challenge in Castres with 11 of their players named in Ireland’s 39-strong training squad for the 2013 RBS 6 Nations Championship.
The fact that four others — Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Dan Tuohy and Luke Marshall — listed as ‘unavailable due to injury’ confirmed that they would have been there, too, further underlining the province’s progress as a force in Irish rugby.
Three of the 11 from the north — Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson and Lewis Stevenson — are uncapped, as are Connacht pair Dave McSharry and Robbie Henshaw plus a third westerner, Ian Madigan, now plying his trade with Leinster.
Declan Kidney’s squad of 39 includes eight Munster players and three from Connacht, with Leinster, the European champions, providing 17.
One of them — Jamie Heaslip — will captain the side, for although it was widely anticipated that his fit-again provincial colleague, Brian O’Driscoll, would resume in that capacity after missing November’s Guinness Series with an ankle injury, Kidney sprang a surprise.
O’Driscoll admitted to being “naturally very disappointed”, before saying that he understood the decision and would give his successor his backing.
Explaining his decision, Kidney said: “Jamie had done a really good job for the squad and management during November and I felt that now was the correct time to do this.
“Brian has had very little rugby in the last number of months and I think he deserves the space and time to concentrate on getting himself back playing fully fit.
“We need Brian the player just as much as we need Brian the captain and typical of the man and the selfless way he has contributed to Irish rugby and the Ireland team, he has said that the captain and the team would have his full support.”
O’Driscoll said: “The captaincy has been a big part of my career and life over the last number of years, and while I was naturally very disappointed not to be leading the team in the Six Nations, when I talked it through with Declan I accepted the reasons behind the decision.
“I’ve always known that the Rugby World Cup in 2015 was most likely a bridge too far for me, so at some point a player, who will most likely be there for the tournament, needs to build that captaincy experience.
“Jamie will do a fantastic job and along with the other senior players in the leadership group, I will be giving him all of the support that he needs.”
Heaslip’s response was: “I was incredibly honoured when Declan asked me back in November to lead the team in Brian’s absence.
“To lead your country is the ultimate in any sport. To get the opportunity again — considering what an inspirational leader Brian is and the other players who could have been chosen to captain the team — is even more humbling.
“I know Brian as a team-mate and as a friend and I will be relying on his and the other players’ support as we head into the championship.”
Ahead of the Six Nations, which for Kidney’s team opens with a trip to Wales on February 2, the O2 Ireland Wolfhounds will play the England Saxons in Galway on January 25.
Senior staff Anthony Foley and Greg Feek will be part of that coaching team for that game and throughout the RBS 6 Nations Championship.
And there will be additions to the squad, notably in the back row, when the players assemble at Ireland’s training base in Carton House, Co Kildare, following this weekend’s Heineken Cup games.
The seniors and Wolfhounds will train together, with the second string’s squad for the clash with the Saxons being selected later next week.
The cull will come after the Wolfhounds game, when a training squad is selected for the following week’s clash with Wales in Cardiff.
Kidney said: “Our priority is the Wales game, but there is an opportunity in the Wolfhounds match for some of the players as we head into the Six Nations.
“While the majority of our focus is on the preparations for the Wales game, the coaching staff felt it made sense to have time with the wider group of players and also to have two fully fit teams on the field ready to train after what is usually an attritional end to the group stages in Europe.
“There are quite a few players who have been out injured and could be lacking game time, so this will be the ideal chance for them — and the newer members in the squad—- to challenge for places in the senior team. “
IRELAND training squad for 2013 RBS 6 Nations Championship (player/province/international caps): Michael Bent (Leinster/2), Rory Best (Ulster/62), Isaac Boss (Leinster/15), Darren Cave (Ulster/3), Tom Court (Ulster/29), Sean Cronin (Leinster/23), Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster/71), Keith Earls (Munster/34), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster/23), Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster/2), Craig Gilroy (Ulster/1), Cian Healy (Leinster/35), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/52, captain), Iain Henderson (Ulster/2), Chris Henry (Ulster/4), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht)*, Paddy Jackson (Ulster)*, Rob Kearney (Leinster/41), David Kilcoyne (Munster/2), Ian Madigan (Leinster)*, Paul Marshall (Ulster)*, Conor Murray (Munster/14), Mike McCarthy (Connacht/6), Fergus McFadden (Leinster/16), Dave McSharry (Connacht/)*, Sean O’Brien (Leinster/22), Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster/91), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster/120), Ronan O’Gara (Munster/126), Peter O’Mahony (Munster/9), Eoin Reddan (Leinster/47), Mike Ross (Leinster/24), Donnacha Ryan (Munster/23), Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/34), Lewis Stevenson (Ulster)*, Richardt Strauss (Leinster/2), Devin Toner (Leinster/3), Andrew Trimble (Ulster/49), Simon Zebo (Munster/3)
Not available due to injury: Tommy Bowe (Ulster/51), Stephen Ferris (Ulster/35), Luke Marshall (Ulster)*, John Muldoon (Connacht/3), Paul O’Connell (Munster/85), Dan Tuohy (Ulster/5)