Are we absolutely SURE the result of this match tonight has no bearing on the Six Nations table? Because going by the two matchday 23s I'm not so sure just how "friendly" this fixture is going to be!
The one name that leaps off the teamsheets and bowls you over (ironically enough) is that of Sam Burgess. His selection demonstrates just how keen the English are to fast-track him into their side ahead of the World Cup. Maybe their injury list is a little longer than they'd like, but I have a feeling he was always in the frame for this fixture; in fact, it could have been promised back when he was being tempted away from the NRL.
There is absolutely no question that he has the ability to become a "smashing" 12 and this will certainly be a big test for him. And no doubt the Saxons will be keen to get him running down our own 10/12 channel from the earliest opportunity for while Messrs Madigan & Darcy have no fear on the tackling front, they will be "sorely" tested tonight.
Clearly the selection of Madigan has been made with a view to giving him game time ahead of Ireland's Sexton-less Six Nations opener next weekend. Of course there's no guarantee he'll start next week, but with the only other back in the 23 to play much outhalf being Noel Reid on the bench, it seems the "Mad-Dog" is down for a full 80 tonight.
It will be just the outing he needs after a disappointing return from the tee in Coventry, though again it needs to be said that he was impressive in other aspects of his game AND his overall kicking in the Euro pool phase made him leading scorer. Add all that to the fact that he's a positive-thinking kind of guy anyway and you'd be confident that he can put in a good shift down in Cork tonight.
Another interesting selection for Joe Schmidt has been that of Keith Earls at 13. Some may be surprised to learn that I'm a fan of his - while there have been times for Ireland where he should have passed but didn't, I believe every team needs at least one player who tends to back himself to score and I'd certainly have him well in the mix for World Cup selection...though for me, it would be on the wing.
Now to be fair...he has made no secret of the fact that he wants to play 13 and since he has been extremely unlucky with injury in recent years, this is a rare opportunity for him to make his own case and I certainly wish him well. Might be a little disappointing for Luke Fitzgerald to find himself out on the wing having done so well for his province but there is certainly no harm in exploring all of our 13 options.
Another I'm looking forward to seeing is Kieran Marmion, and no offence to Isaac Boss but I hope the Connacht scrum half is also pegged to get a full 80-minute shift as I'd love to see him try that step of his in the latter stages against a tiring Saxons pack.
Speaking of the forwards, well, there's no sugar-coating it...this is virtually a Leinster tight 8. But the name of Iain Henderson doesn't merely stand out because of his province. He has all the makings of a marquee test player at Stephen Ferris levels and given all the time he has spent on the sidelines you can be sure he'll be keen to make his mark tonight.
Of course when it comes to returnees from injury, all the talk tonight will be about former European Player of the Year Sean O'Brien. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter a jot how he plays tonight, just that he gets a decent shift in and stays healthy.
When it comes to our bench, the name Nathan White interests me the most. He could well be the most important figure in our World Cup plans. Yes, we have brought through players like Marty Moore to the test team but in White we have a player who was pretty much ready for Test rugby the second he set foot on Irish soil, so clearly he's good to go now and as much as I'd be a fan of Ross & Moore I think White is a valuable string to our bow and hopefully he'll get at least half an hour tonight.
Of course the English side has more to worry us than just Sam Burgess. There's plenty of try-scoring ability in their wing pairing of Ashton & Yarde, with Christian Wade on the bench. You can always expect a physical battle from any English pack, and particularly when one is thrown together as this one has from four different Premiership clubs. Our back row will certainly have their hands full.
But when it comes to picking the side that's more likely to come together and play well from the get-go, I'd have to plump for the Wolfhounds, and by a few more points than the 5 the bookies are offering. Still...like I said, the most important thing is that the players get a good run and that all goes according to Joe Schmidt's World Cup masterplan. #ShoulderToShoulder JLP
P.S. If you can't make it to Cork tonight for the match and want some rugby this weekend, why not check out the Ulster Bank League fixture list and see if there's a match in your area. This is a rare weekend in the rugby season when neither the full Irish team nor any of the provinces are playing so it's a good opportunity to get out and see your local side.
SAXONS : 15 Chris Pennell (Worcester Warriors) 14 Chris Ashton (Saracens) 13 Elliot Daly (Wasps) 12 Sam Burgess (Bath Rugby) 11 Marland Yarde (Harlequins) 10 Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs) 9 Lee Dickson, captain (Northampton Saints)
1 Matt Mullan (Wasps) 2 Rob Webber (Bath Rugby) 3 Henry Thomas (Bath Rugby) 4 Matt Garvey (Bath Rugby) 5 James Gaskell (Wasps) 6 Dave Ewers (Exeter Chiefs) 7 Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby) 8 Thomas Waldrom (Exeter Chiefs)
Replacements - 16 Luke Cowan Dickie (Exeter Chiefs) 17 Alex Waller (Northampton Saints) 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley (Wasps) 19 Maro Itoje (Saracens) 20 Carl Fearns (Bath) 21 Joe Simpson (Wasps) 22 Ollie Devoto (Bath Rugby) 23 Christian Wade (Wasps)
Friday, January 30, 2015
Irish Independent Park, kickoff, 7:45pm
Live on Sky Sports
Referee: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees, Stuart Kibble (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)