Stephen Ferris, the high-calibre flanker from Portadown whose current form is forcing opponents into all manner of violent indiscretions, has been passed fit to take his place in Ireland's back row for tomorrow's match with France in Paris – by some distance the pick of the second round of Six Nations matches. Meanwhile, another forward invalided out of last summer's Lions tour of South Africa, the Scottish prop Euan Murray, was feeling equally good about himself, if for radically different reasons.
Murray missed his country's comprehensive home defeat by the French five days ago because his religious convictions prevent him playing on the Sabbath. The 29-year-old Glaswegian did not pay too much attention to the events unfolding at Murrayfield – "I had a good Sunday, a good Lord's day," he reported – so he was largely unaware of the slaughtering his overmatched front-row replacement Moray Low took at the scrummage. All the same, he fully appreciates the weight of expectation he carries into the match with Wales at the Millennium Stadium, which will set the tournament ball rolling tomorrow afternoon.
"I hope things will change in future; I don't see why there have to be games on Sundays," Murray said after confirmation of his immediate recall. "I don't know how many of my team-mates agree with my approach, but I'm happy with my decision and they seem to have accepted it by taking me as I come. They've been with me through good times and bad and seen both sides of my life, before and after I became a Christian. They know how important it is to me."
He is of fundamental importance to the Scots, especially now their strongest scrummaging lock, Nathan Hines, is injured. The Welsh will start once again without Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees, though Jenkins is fit enough to sit on the bench, and there is every likelihood of him going eyeball to eyeball with Murray at some point during the contest.
Was there not just a small part of Murray that struggled to reconcile born-again belief with the various forms of rugby bastardy that generally form a part of the tight-head's modus operandi? "I don't go out and hit people with hatred," he said, reassuringly. "That would be wrong. But I do go out and try to smash people as hard as I can, all over the field." It was an honest answer. Quite what those attending this week's General Synod would make of it is anyone's guess.
Ferris, both gouged and stamped on recently, has also been known to smash a few opponents – all in the best possible taste, of course. His return at the expense of Kevin McLaughlin, who drops out of the squad, gives the champions a significant leg-up ahead of a game that will go a long way towards deciding the title. Rather like the potential Murray-Jenkins confrontation, the back-row battle in Paris will be one for the connoisseur. Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip against Fulgence Ouedraogo, Imanol Harinordoquy and the astonishing Thierry Dusautoir is the stuff of rugby dreams.
England flew to Rome last night with Delon Armitage feeling the heat after a below-par performance against Wales. He dismissed his interception of Stephen Jones's pass that led to the winning try for James Haskell as "a bit of luck" and added: "I was very disappointed. We won, but on a personal level it was the worst game I've played for my country. I felt I let people down and I sulked a bit on Saturday night. Then I spent some time at home reviewing the game. Self-analysis is an important part of the process, as is honesty. I put my hand up in the team meeting and said: 'I'll be better next week for you guys'."
Armitage, such a hit in his first season at Test level, has not been anything like himself for weeks, and another rough game at Stadio Flaminio will increase Ben Foden's chances of an international breakthrough.
* Wasps will lose Paul Sackey at the end of the campaign. Sackey has decided to move to France, although his precise destination has yet to be confirmed.
McGeechan to help out at Gloucester
Sir Ian McGeechan, renowned and revered as the greatest of all contributors to British and Irish Lions rugby, has accepted an invitation to bring a little of his strategic and man-management expertise to Gloucester. McGeechan will operate at Kingsholm in an advisory capacity, helping out Bryan Redpath.
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