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Ulster stars are at the heart of Ireland hopes

Ulster could provide the central spine of the Ireland line-up for Friday’s first Test in the International Rules series in Melbourne.

Donegal’s Neil McGee, who won a coveted Allstar award last Friday, looks set to fill the full-back role while Kevin McKernan (Down) may be in the middle of the half-back line with McGee’s county colleague Michael Murphy poised to slot in at full-forward.

In addition, vice-captain Ciaran McKeever will start at wing-back while Karl Lacey, strongly in the running to become Ulster’s Player of the Year after an outstanding season with Donegal, and Armagh veteran Steven McDonnell are making a strong pitch for starting places.

McGee, McKernan and Murphy are big, strong, robust players who are ideally equipped to meet the physical demands of what manager Anthony Tohill feels will be a stamina-sapping encounter against a strong-running Australian side.

McGee and McKernan can help shore up the centre of the Ireland defence while Murphy, who may be partnered by the wily McDonnell, could prove the ideal target man up front.

Monaghan ace Darran Hughes also has his sights on starting place and may indeed jostle with McKernan for a pivotal half-back role.

Ulster indeed has traditionally provided the backbone of teams for the International Rules and has often supplied the squad captain, the most recent incumbents of this role having been Sean Cavanagh (2008) and McDonnell (2010).

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Cavanagh led the side to success Down Under but last year the Aussies won both Tests in Ireland.

McKeever, strong and abrasive, is unperturbed about having to deal with the media since skipper Stephen Cluxton will adhere to his vow of silence.

Even after his stunning achievement in slotting over the last-gasp 45-metre free that clinched the All Ireland title for Dublin Cluxton refused to articulate his feelings to the Press, instead slipping off to the sanctuary of the Croke Park dressing-room.

Last week it is understood that he made contact with Kerry defender Tomas O Se apologising for any misunderstanding that might have arisen when the latter offered him the match ball at the end of the All Ireland final only for Cluxton to kick it away.

Ireland manager Anthony Tohill, while defending Cluxton’s right to remain silent, nevertheless is aware that any public relations gaffes will be exploited by the media.

And this will certainly impose more pressure on the normally ebullient McKeever, one of the most enthusiastic exponents of the Rules code.

“I am looking forward to the two Tests and whatever duties I’m asked to fulfil in relation to the media I’ll be happy to do so,” he said.

Tohill is expected to confirm his starting line-up for Friday’s game tomorrow morning.

Rolling substitutes can be used during the course of the match which will consist of four twenty-minute quarters.

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