Eight Ulster players have been included in the Ireland Wolfhounds squad for Friday’s meeting with the England Saxons at Galway’s Sportsground (kick-off 7.45pm).
Andrew Trimble, Iain Henderson and the newly restored squad member Tom Court are the three leading contenders to push Declan Kidney for inclusion in his plans for the opening Six Nations clash against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday week.
However, the other five Ulster players can boost their own causes with Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave, Paul Marshall, Declan Fitzpatrick and Lewis Stevenson all eager to make their presence felt whether from the Wolfhounds’ bench or for the starting side which is due to be announced tomorrow.
For Trimble this represents another opportunity to bring his excellent Ulster form with him when he transfers to national duty, though breaking into the full Ireland starting line-up will be extremely difficult with Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order.
Trimble’s task could be made even more difficult by the long awaited return of Luke Fitzgerald, who seems set to start for the Wolfhounds on the other wing.
As for Court, the hurt at being left out of the squad for the autumn internationals has seen him knuckle down to produce some huge performances in an Ulster shirt, which have demanded that the loose-head prop be given another chance.
He is now very much in the battle to win back his place on the Ireland bench while Iain Henderson will also be eyeing up his chance to make the match day squad again after the autumn internationals.
Jackson may well find himself benching for the Wolfhounds behind Ian Keatley while Cave, Marshall, Fitzpatrick and Stevenson, the latter having been called up to the national training squad for the first time, will all be hoping to see some action on Friday night.
Meanwhile, Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar have both been included in the longlist for the ERC European Player of the Year award as the search begins to find a successor to last year’s winner Rob Kearney.
The only other Irish player listed is Munster’s Simon Zebo who scored a hat-trick of tries in their win over Racing Metro which clinched their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.