McLaughlin is on the march
Flanker earns first Irish cap as meteoric rise continues
Leinster flanker Kevin McLaughlin completed a meteoric rise as the shooting star of Irish rugby by winning the favour of coach Declan Kidney for his first cap against Italy in the Six Nations on Saturday.
"It is a big step-up for me this weekend. Every Irish player aspires to play for his country. I am going to treat it like any other game and get on with it," said McLaughlin.
It came as a reverberating shock to learn the gentlemanly, choir-singing McLaughlin had been chosen to step into the boots of the revered British and Irish Lion Stephen Ferris, who has been sidelined with a knee injury.
Beforehand, the main problem seemed to be the knee injury suffered by Ferris in Ulster's Heineken Cup win over Bath last Saturday week. He was restricted to taking his weight off the knee for seven days.
The Lisburn man is one of the most feared forwards in world rugby for his natural power and aggression, the bare essentials of his profession at blindside. He has set a standard that McLaughlin will have to reach for on Saturday.
The Ireland coach had more than one surprise for the assembled press as it was revealed that Ronan O'Gara returns as the out-half following a thigh injury to the incumbent Jonathan Sexton.
The Munster man has shown commendable resilience to fight his way out of a bout of poor form for his province to re-establish himself on an equal footing with Sexton.
It was difficult not to conclude that Sexton's measured swing of the leg for a 40-metre equalising drop goal against London Irish at Twickenham was the moment he answered the last question over his mental capacity to deliver when it was most needed.
Really, Sexton moved ahead of O'Gara in November. For all of the Munster man's exquisite impact against Perpignan, it was expected Sexton would hold on to his jersey. Then, the spectre of injury intervened.
"I've learned in this job you don't make a decision until you have to," said Kidney, neatly side-stepping the O'Gara-Sexton selection poser.
Ulster's Andrew Trimble is another to be restored to the first XV. He was hindered by an injury for most of last season, dropping away from view as the forgotten man of Irish rugby.
An operation followed and a recovery of form that was best illustrated in his stunning one-man individual try against Bath in the Heineken Cup last Saturday week.
The rejuvenation of Gordon D'Arcy from his all-action cameo against South Africa in the November international to his man of the match incisions against the Exiles 11 days ago edged him ahead of Paddy Wallace.
It was possibly a closer call than was indicated by Kidney's decision to select Wallace at out-half for Ireland 'A' against the England Saxons, in which he acquitted himself very well. He brings a completely different skills set to the squad than D'Arcy.
Then again, it is more likely that Kidney played Wallace against the Saxons because Sexton was struggling with a thigh problem. As always, there was method to what appeared something close to madness.
IRELAND (v Italy): R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, A Trimble; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; C Healy, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, K McLaughlin, D Wallace, J Heaslip.