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RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster stars look to win place in Ireland squad

After last Sunday's big freeze, a whole clutch of Irish players will be anxious to come in from the cold this weekend.

It may just be bread and butter fare for the average sports fan, but this weekend's Pro12 fixtures could provide the nourishment needed to boost Ireland's rearranged Six Nations schedule.

Four matches in 22 days is a schedule that might even get Alex Ferguson on his soapbox - for international rugby players in an era when strength and power overshadow skill and subtlety, it is borderline barmy.

There has been a lot of blasé talk about how the forthcoming month reflects a World Cup campaign; one squad player has even likened it to a Senior Schools Cup run!

That is nonsense - only a World Cup finalist can ever hope to face four successive games against Tier A countries.

On the face of it, travelling to Paris after a presumably morale-boosting victory against Italy seems better than the circumstances that prevailed last weekend, post Welsh wipeout and all that.

Hypothesis is as useful as hyperbole in sport, however. Irish supporters should be careful what they wish for.

The bottom line is that, for 22 days of remorseless rugby slog, an Ireland team desperately struggling for consistency will require a greater strength in depth than ever before.

And Declan Kidney will get the opportunity to stridently reject the allegations of conservatism that have been levelled against him, whether fairly or not, as he is forced to delve deeper into Ireland's resources than at any time during his reign.

Aside from the opportunities knocking for a clutch of fringe players this weekend, the clashes of Leinster v Scarlets and Ulster v Cardiff also provide another opportunity to copperfasten an uncanny Celtic puzzle. Both Irish sides can confirm slots in the top four of the Pro12 table, condemning their opponents to the bottom half and confirming the superiority of Irish clubs in pan-Celtic and European fare.

When he first pitched up in front of the media for the first time this year, Kidney parroted the line that, in fairness, many of the rest of us were already tentatively recording for future posterity.

"The provinces' results have been great," he chirped as everyone in the room nodded enthusiastically. "We must be doing something right."

Defeat in Lansdowne Road's Six Nations opener shredded that optimism. At international level, Wales have shrugged aside their regions' undistinguished European record to ramp up a hat-trick of successes against Ireland at national level within a year.

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It suits Ireland to highlight the mutual benefits of provincial and international rugby when both facets are performing well; when one is out-performing the other, though, excuses are trotted out.

"They're the same in the fact that you're beating the s**t out of each other for 80 minutes and it's fast-tempo rugby," Cian Healy told the Irish Independent this week.

"It's seriously quality as well. But it's a difficult environment outside the pitch. You don't stay at home in the Ireland camp, you're outside of your comfort zone and that can be tough after a month or so. The lads get on with it and everyone is in the same boat. We just get on with it. I like our system."

For all that, Ireland haven't managed to fuse provincial success with achievement on the international stage for three years. But this weekend's immediate priority is to provide a stage for players to declare that they are ready to take the plunge into an irrevocably altered Six Nations landscape.

Likely Lads

1 Nevin Spence

Seen as a possible World Cup bolter a year ago, Spence remains firmly on the Irish radar and he could be an option in midfield if the Gordon D'Arcy/Keith Earls combination misfires.

2 Chris Henry

With Ireland's first-choice back-row unlikely to be deployed on four successive weekends - even the Grand Slam campaign saw Ireland's then first-choice back-row rejigged - Ireland need cover here and Henry's fine form may demand recognition.

3 Sean Cronin

Rory Best remains irreplaceable at hooker for Ireland but while Cronin's ability as an impact sub is well recognised, Kidney will have to pitch him for a first Six Nations start. Holding his own against Richardt Strauss in their battle for a Leinster starting spot offers encouragement.

4 Peter O'Mahony

As with all games this weekend, one suspects that the release of players is contingent upon the provinces doing what they are told with them - O'Mahony has leapfrogged others in Kidney's eyes and he will be eager to maintain his levels of form this weekend.

5 Fergus McFadden and Eoin o'Malley

For all the confident chatter linking either of these men with the onerous short-term task of replacing Brian O'Driscoll, neither were ultimately trusted, with McFadden only emerging due to Keith Earls' personal torment. Playing 12 this weekend, McFadden's chance may have been lost.

6 Dan Tuohy

Ireland's second-row cover remains light and Tuohy, albeit originally overlooked for Leo Cullen, will be jostling with the more flexible Donnacha Ryan in an attempt to catch the Irish selectors' attention.

7 Eoin Reddan

Even a try-scoring performance for the Irish second-string couldn't help Tomas O'Leary's cause so Reddan remains second in line; those arguing that the most potent provincial half-back pairing should start for Ireland will be cheering on the Limerick man this weekend.

A boy named Ian ...

Sexton and O'Gara are streets ahead of the competition in their joust for the No 10 jersey - it is time for the rest of the pack to shunt up the queue and messrs Madigan, Keatley and Humphreys will be watched keenly.

Bolters from the wings

Dave Kearney made the bench against Wales but, with the back three players more likely than most to play all four matches - barring injury, of course - he may struggle to return - as is the case with the likes of Simon Zebo, Ian Whitten, Fionn Carr, and Craig Gilroy, all seeking to shine this weekend.

Oh, and not forgetting Felix Jones - the Munster man who came from the fringes and would have gone to the World Cup but for a heartbreaking late injury.

His experience last summer indicates precisely just why Kidney and his coaches will need to avail of every possible scenario -- the hard work ahead begins in the RDS and Cardiff Arms Park this evening.

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