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INPHO/Dan Sheridan Donncha's flat out.
# Stretching the Squad
Here we go again - fixture juggle means four matches in 22 days
Declan Kidney will need to draw every last ounce out of his squad as the Six Nations schedule becomes congested.

WHEN IRELAND FACED up against the Italians at Otago Stadium in a World Cup winner-takes-all clash, only one player, Jamie Heaslip, was playing his third full-game in succession.

Heaslip and Rob Kearney were the only men that started and finished the win over Russia in Rotorua before lining up for their final Pool C game.

The majority of the team that swept aside the Italians 36-6 had been spared significant game time between that match and the Wallabies match some 15 days before.

The eventual rescheduling of Ireland’s away-day in Paris by the Six Nations Council now sees Declan Kidney’s men playing four matches in 22 days. It is little wonder that the 30-man squad was given two days off after arriving back from France.

The re-jigged schedule now means Ireland will play four weekends in succession against Italy, France, and Scotland before finishing up at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.

In the negotiations over the rescheduling of the France match, which was called off 10 minutes to kick-off after the pitch was declared frozen and unplayable, the IRFU requested 3 March as a preferred date. The council opted for Sunday, 4 March and Ireland are now faced with a six-day turnaround before welcoming Scotland to the Aviva.

Tony Buckley and Geordan Murphy aside, the Irish coach selected every one of his World Cup players that were not injured when he named his initial training squad for sessions in Limerick in January.

Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble may soon line out together  Pic: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Since then, Peter O’Mahony, Brett Wilkinson, Simon Zebo, Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy, Rhys Ruddock, Denis Hurley, Eoin O’Malley and Dave Kearney have all been called up and may find themselves thrust into action as the games come thick and fast. Kidney is renowned as a coach that revels in working with players on tours and in tournament conditions.

“If he can manage his resources successfully, instil a cup mentality in his squad and fashion a decent tilt at the Six Nations championship it may rank as one of Kidney’s finest achievements. The Lions Tour tailors may have to hold off on that suit measuring appointment for Warren Gatland and his favoured lieutenants.”

The obvious games to, for want of a better word, dilute the side will come in the home matches with Italy and Scotland. It is a risky move, especially as Italy’s backline have resurfaced for the first time in over a decade and the Scots beat Ireland at the Aviva last time out.

However, barring injuries, the Keith Earls and Gordon D’Arcy centre-axis should finally get an outing against the Italians. In New Zealand, Kidney described Earls as the man in ‘pole position’ to replace Brian O’Driscoll in the centre and the Munster man will get his chance after a stalled Six Nations start.

Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney should all play three games at least and the half-back positions will be shared between Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton, and Eoin Reddan and Ronan O’Gara.

Despite protests from some quarters, the Irish back-row will remain intact for the next two games at least. A defeat to the French may see a clamour for the inclusion of Peter O’Mahony but the condensed fixtures should see him make at least one start.

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Others that may lighten the load at the back of the pack are Shane Jennings and Chris Henry. Leinster’s Kevin McLaughlin is back from injury and Connacht’s John Muldoon has come back well from injury and shown signs of form that earned him a call-up to the tour of New Zealand in 2010. Muldoon is certainly ready for the call:

“That tour doesn’t hold great memories for me as I broke my arm early in the game. I was delighted with my pre-season this year and feel like I am getting back close to my best. Like any Irish player, I would be delighted to get the call-up to the senior squad.”

Donnacha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell have kept their second-row partnership alive but Dan Tuohy and Donncha Ryan, in particular, are pressing their case for inclusion.

Sean Cronin finds himself unfortunate to be second-choice hooker behind Rory Best, who is in the form of his life, but the Leinster man will not falter if selected.

Last but most definitely not least comes the crucial cover in the front row. Cian Healy and Mike Ross remain precious commodities and are unlikely to get through four gruelling international matches in quick succession without a rest and plenty of ice packs.

Tom Court will be the next to step in while Brett Wilkinson (Connacht) will hope to finally earn his first cap. Ronan Loughney is another option at prop if the temptation to root out John Hayes’ phone number is resisted.

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