Burke joins Irish peers

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Paul Burke played for England at every level until seeing the green light which has eventually meant he will make his debut for Ireland, land of his father, against the land of his birth at Lansdowne Road on Saturday week, writes Steve Bale.

It was a bold decision by the Irish selectors yesterday to go for a more attacking but defensively fragile outside-half than Eric Elwood, and somewhat puzzling given the choice of a pack - especially the recalled Mick Galwey at lock - more obviously equipped to get in among the English, as Ireland did in beating them in 1994 and '93, than to ply Burke with a steady flow of possession.

Burke's progress from Hampton Wick to his newly exalted status has, if he will pardon the expression, been quintessentially Irish. As late as two seasons ago he was partnering Kyran Bracken, who subsequently became the senior England scrum-half despite (unlike Burke) being born in Ireland, in the England Under-21 win over Ireland at Newcastle.

By last season Burke had metamorphosed into the Ireland Under-21 outside-half against England across the Tyne at Gateshead, and of that beaten Irish team, the flanker Anthony Foley has also moved onward and upward to become the other new cap against England.

Confused? Not Burke. This season he demonstrated his commitment and ambition by leaving London Irish, moving to Ireland to join Cork Constitution and playing a decisive role in Munster's first outright Inter-Provincial title since 1978 - which was a rather good year for the province since they also beat New Zealand.

Alas for Burke, the Inter-Pros came after Ireland's only autumn international, against the United States, when Elwood was an injury absentee. Then, the outside-half place went to Alan McGowan and Leicester's Niall Malone was also capped as a replacement.

Now McGowan is relegated to the Ireland A team and Malone to the bench for the game with England A at Donnybrook on Friday week, though the hardest fall is that of the once untouchable Elwood, first choice for the past two years.

Though no one was greatly impressed by Ireland's showing against the US, 12 members of that side are retained. A more appropriate comparison, however, would be with the XV who ended the last championship against Scotland, of whom only eight survive.

The difference is the tour of Australia that threw up a group of promising individuals in the meantime. Gabriel Fulcher, injured for much of the season, is the unlucky one who loses out to Galwey but Jonathan Bell, Keith Wood and David Corkery are three of the likeliest prospects in any of the Five Nations.

Pat O'Hara's place on the flank goes to Foley, who has made the transition to the Ireland team two months after playing for the Under-21s who notably beat England in Belfast. If the seniors manage to do so too in Dublin, it will be the first time for 19 years that Ireland have beaten anyone three times in a row.

IRELAND (v England, Dublin, 21 January): C O'Shea (Lansdowne); S Geoghegan (Bath), B Mullin (Blackrock College), P Danaher (Garryowen), J Bell (Ballymena); P Burke, M Bradley (Constitution, capt); N Popplewell (Wasps), K Wood (Garryowen), P Clohessy (Young Munster), M Galwey (Shannon), N Francis (Old Belvedere), A Foley (Shannon), P Johns (Dungannon), D Corkery (Constitution). Replacements: N Woods (Blackrock College), E Elwood (Lansdowne), N Hogan (Terenure College), G Fulcher (Constitution), G Halpin (London Irish), T Kingston (Dolphin).

Ireland A team, Sporting digest, page 31