Familiar faces plot Ireland's revival

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The Independent Online

The Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan has kept faith with his World Cup flops for the Six Nations opener against Italy. O'Sullivan has named a 22-man squad for the Croke Park match that includes 14 survivors from the team beaten 30-15 by Argentina in September.

Among the new faces are the highly-rated Leinster No 8 Jamie Heaslip, who has won three caps, and his provincial colleague Bernard Jackman. Jackman has profited after Munster hooker Jerry Flannery was suspended for the entire tournament for stamping while on Heineken Cup duty.

With Rory Best fit after recovering from his ankle injury, Jackman is likely to feature on the bench when O'Sullivan unveils his starting line-up to face Italy.

Jackman looks set to be joined by the Munster second row Mick O'Driscoll, who has beaten off the challenge of Leinster's Leo Cullen.

An update on Paul O'Connell's back injury is expected soon – surgery would force him to miss the Six Nations – so Donncha O'Callaghan and Malcolm O'Kelly are the first choice locks. The Munster prop Tony Buckley is included, supplying backup for starting front rows John Hayes and Marcus Horan, while Leinster winger Robert Kearney also features. With Shane Horgan struggling with a knee injury – the Leinster veteran starts Ireland A's game against England Saxons next Friday – Kearney could go straight into the XV.

Should O'Sullivan opt for experience instead, Geordan Murphy of Leicester will be handed the No 14 jersey. Kearney has been selected ahead of Tommy Bowe, whose Ulster team-mate Neil Best is a high-profile omission from the 22.

The other position in doubt is scrum-half, where O'Sullivan must choose between Peter Stringer and Eoin Reddan –with the latter in pole position.

"The match 22 selection for the Italy game was made on the basis of form," O'Sullivan said. "While the response of all of the squad over the last week has been excellent, there were some tight calls. This will be even harder to do next week when we decide the final selection."

To an extent the Ireland coach is caught between a rock and a hard place, weighing up the pressing need to uncover the next generation of Test players with the win-at-all-costs approach essential if he is to keep his job. A poor performance in the Six Nations would conclude O'Sullivan's six-year reign as Ireland boss and the 49-year-old is under immense pressure.

The precarious nature of his position is no more apparent than in the Irish Rugby Football Union's decision to delay making the new appointments of team manager, backs coach and sports psychologist until after the tournament. Mindful that a new head coach might want different personalities on his management team, the IRFU are waiting to see how the Six Nations unfolds before acting.

But O'Sullivan is confident his first choice Ireland team remain a force to be reckoned with. "It's not rocket science to see where it went wrong at the World Cup," he said. "We didn't play enough rugby in the build-up and we were in a difficult group. But we didn't become a bad rugby team overnight. The Six Nations is an opportunity to prove that."

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