Article primarily on Johnny Sexton from the Indo:
QUOTEand one on the manchild Cian Healy from the Herald:http://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/magn...902488.html
WHAT a difference a year makes. From paltry resources to relative health, Ireland's fortunes in the crucial out-half position have transformed dramatically in the last 12 months.
Jonathan Sexton finally put his hand up as genuine opposition to Ronan O'Gara for the Irish 10 shirt after steering Leinster to Heineken Cup glory last May and the duo are set to go head-to-head in the RDS tomorrow night.
O'Gara is still very much the man in possession, but, for the first time since David Humphreys retired after the 2006 Six Nations campaign, the Munster man has reason to look over his shoulder.
Elsewhere, Ian Keatley has benefited hugely from his move to Connacht as witnessed by the brace of caps he won against the US Eagles and Canada during the recent summer tour.
And with Ian Humphreys in excellent early-season form for Ulster -- who will also nurture the undoubted potential of Niall O'Connor -- it seems Declan Kidney has the answers for the short, medium and long-term at out-half.
Previously, Paddy Wallace was the most viable replacement for O'Gara, even though he spent much of his time with Ulster operating in midfield. But now the national side has a depth of talent where there was once a dearth.
It's not an unfamiliar situation for Irish rugby. Tony Ward and Ollie Campbell famously battled it out for the number 10 shirt, while others like Paul Dean, Barry McGann and even Mike Gibson operated at pivot for Ireland around that same period, which puts Mick Quinn's tally of 10 caps at the time into perspective.
"There's no doubt there are a few of them showing their head at the moment," Quinn agreed. "Sexton is quite a bit ahead of the others at the moment in that he has more of an all-round game.
"I like Keatley as a footballer but he may not have a consistent place-kicking game yet, whereas Sexton seems to have got to grips with that."
The St Mary's man has picked up where he left off last season and at the weekend he held his nerve to drop a winning injury-time goal against Leinster's one-time 'bogey team' Edinburgh. It was further evidence of how Sexton, who was in the shadow of Felipe Contepomi for the past few seasons before the Argentinian's move to Toulon, has blossomed.
"Contepomi is a world-class player and Jonny was coming in for him and giving Leinster something different. He gave them game control which is along the lines of what Ireland need," Quinn said.
"O'Gara's strength is his kicking game and putting the ball in the corner and Sexton's pretty good at that as well. That's not to say that Ronan will be moving aside any day soon but it means we are definitely stronger in an area where we were particularly weak.
"Ian Humphreys is playing well and what I like about him is that he can play well in big games. But he needs to play well in all the games. It's as if he's only able to get motivated for the really big games and then goes out and plays well. His problem up to now has been consistency and whether he has got the physical side of things right defensively. But that's nothing that can't be got over.
"I haven't seen too much of Niall (O'Connor). From what I hear of him, he is a very talented guy but he has to get some game experience. If he's going to come through he's got to get in at Ulster consistently."
The Player Management Programme put in place by the IRFU will help ensure that senior players like O'Gara arrive in New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup in the best shape possible, while Sexton et al will be expected to improve further still over the next two seasons. So, are we likely to see another Campbell/Ward-esque duel come the World Cup?
"I'm not so sure," argued Quinn. "Kidney is a very astute operator and I think he will have all of these players blooded but he will know what his best team is. He'll have the 30 or 35 players that he will feel he can trust and he will be quite willing to try them during the World Cup because there are two or three games where you will need your squad players."
Quinn boldly predicted that Leinster would win the Heineken Cup in the Irish Independent last December when it seemed more likely that they would fail to qualify from their pool.
And now the Lansdowne man reckons Ireland can achieve great things at the next World Cup but the former Irish out-half warned that this season might have to be sacrificed if Kidney is to have the strongest possible squad available to him when Ireland's campaign kicks-off.
"I have great hopes for Ireland. Not necessarily in this Six Nations because I think we will have to try people in different positions to get ready for the following season, which is very important," he explained. "I have high hopes for Ireland at the next World Cup. I think we are going to do really well in it."[/b]
Amid the hype and the expectation that has brewed all week, Cian Healy somehow manages to retain his calm and cool exterior.
To while away the hours of inner anticipation and nerves, the Clontarf powerhouse delves into a pastime that has become an important part of his life. He makes time for himself, arming himself with markers, pencils and paper, finds a quiet corner and loses himself sketching works of fact, fantasy or fiction.
He's not your typical prop. In the 24 hours before one of the biggest derbies in Europe, Healy will be found tending meticulously to this different craft.
Once the outside fires are tended to, the passion sinks in, fuelled by the desire to pit your wits against top international talent.
So far this season he has faced countless front rows, learning in each and every tussle. Some good days, some bad. It's all part of the curve. This weekend marks an altogether different battle coming, as it will, against some of his biggest rivals for the Ireland jersey.
Friends one week, foes the next. It's the nature of top-class sport. Talk to the former Belvedere man about this weekend's game and he tells you about honour. Reference the players with whom he could be locking horns with and the word respect abounds.
The last time they met was at the September national training camp in Dublin. This weekend will be a whole new ball game and Healy is well aware of the challenge that awaits.
"When you come up against the Bull (John Hayes) or Tony Buckley, you have to contend with two things," the soon-to-be 22-year-old said on the eve of tomorrow evening's sell-out encounter at the RDS.
"First up is their ability. Second is their physical size. They are both massive people and if you're not at your very best, they will physically dominate you at setpiece time. So you have to get your head around that.
"I've come up against both of them and they, alongside Marcus (Horan) are top-class props. They have also added a French international in (Julien) Brugnaut, who looks another strong operator, so we will really have to meet them head on up front. It should be an interesting challenge."
Though not overly satisfied with the fluency of his side's victories over the Ospreys and Edinburgh in the past fortnight, Healy sees major positives in the squad's ability to grind out victories on the road. He sees each of the performances as an important step forward, considering how several league results went against the team last season.
"Winning is the name of the game at this level," Healy stresses.
"It's better to win ugly than not at all, but, as a group, we know that everything needs to improve come Saturday evening because Munster are a top-class side.
"I don't think that you'll find too many of the top teams peaking in September, because the Magners League is all about building momentum. In saying that, we know that we're capable of playing a lot better.
"To that end, training has been really sharp this week. We had areas to work on, but there was a real focus and intensity to the sessions which will hopefully bode well for us.
"These are the games you hate to lose because the rivalry is so intense. It's the same with Leinster training. The competition for places in the front row is fierce and we'd be trying to get one over each another during sessions. We give it our all in training and then have a laugh about it afterwards, but that help breed competition.
"Every single player in our squad has aspirations of playing and the top players look to play week in, week out. We lost both league games against Munster last year and those results hurt us."
Though the last meeting of the two great provincial rivals drew a world record crowd in Croke Park, Healy believes that the result will have little, if any, bearing on this weekend's fixture.
"We're entering into a really busy time in the calendar. With Munster up first, we then face London Irish and travel to France to play Brive. But we won't be looking past this test. It's a huge challenge for us and one that we're looking forward to.
"I'm really excited about coming up against some of the best scrummagers in the country and I see it as a barometer to see how my own game has improved over the last year."
And to his hobby? "Ah, sure it's just something to keep you occupied! It relaxes me and helps keep my mind clear. I'll paint anything that comes into my head or whatever's on my mind ... "
Clarity of thought and order amid the muscle and the might. It's an interesting picture he paints, this portrait of the artist as a young man.
For Healy, the message remains clear; the painting is unfinished, the improvements are never ending.[/b]