Bold Kidney rolls the dice
Published 22/11/2012 | 05:00
Ulster's explosive talent Craig Gilroy will be fast-tracked on to Ireland's wing as coach Declan Kidney invests in youthful exuberance for inspiration against Argentina.
Gilroy is expected to be the only newcomer in Ireland's Test team from the match against South Africa two weeks ago, as Kidney seeks to augment the attacking potential of Simon Zebo at full-back with the winger's incisive running.
It's a bold move by the usually conservative coach. While Gilroy's pace and eye for the try-line are unquestioned, it is a good bet his hitherto unproven defensive capabilities will be seriously tested on Saturday.
Argentina are sure to look to exploit his and Zebo's inexperience at this level, and the pair can expect an aerial barrage. The Pumas have evolved from a team of rough-and-ready battlers into a more sophisticated outfit who now boast far more backline quality in their arsenal, and the two rookies can expect a thorough examination.
Gilroy's three tries against Fiji proved his credentials last weekend, while Zebo has grown with every game since breaking into the Munster team last season.
Critics of Kidney's regime have often – at times unfairly – pointed to his conservative nature, but the selection of this pair belies that caricature. They, along with Tommy Bowe, represent an attack-orientated back three that, provided they get the right service, will ask questions of the Argentina defence.
Injuries have, of course, forced Kidney's hand in relation to his choice at full-back. Rob Kearney is the glaring absentee but, while Denis Hurley and Ian Madigan both have more experience of playing there, Zebo is an exciting choice.
His natural game is one of attack. He is, as supported by evidence from the squad's training camp, the fastest player in the set-up and has matured into a quality asset.
Speed doesn't always translate into an effective international player, but Zebo's progression from being a player with potential to one who is delivering on the bigger stages (reference his hat-trick of tries against Northampton last season) is continuing to gain momentum.
As an up-and-coming youngster, he was described as "a great underage player" and then as "a great AIL player", which was always followed by the addendum that he wasn't mature enough to make the step up to the pro game.
Every time he has stepped up a level, though, Zebo has produced. Full-back is still a position that is alien to him but he clearly has the footballing skills, the speed and the right attitude to thrive. The experience of playing there against South Africa will also stand him in good stead this weekend.
For his Cork Constitution coach and former full-back at club and inter-provincial level, Brian Walsh, it is Zebo's unpredictability that makes his selection at full-back so exciting.
"His natural instinct is to attack, and with ball in hand he will stretch Argentina's defence to the limit and cause alarm whenever he finds himself in a little space," said Walsh.
"He doesn't have huge experience at full-back – we played him right cross the backline but usually on the wings or in the centre – but he's a good footballer. That's what's important.
"And he's confident in his own abilities. He is good in the air. Look how well he adapted to the step up from AIL to Celtic League and from Celtic League to Heineken Cup.
"It's a challenge for him and he will have to be on his game defensively as well, but he's risen to and bested every challenge in his career so far."
It's not the backline – which will again see Keith Earls and Gordon D'Arcy in the centre – that is most under scrutiny this weekend, however. That distinction is saved for the forward division, in particular Mike Ross at tighthead and captain Jamie Heaslip.
It's pretty much accepted that the Ireland management have been less than enthused with Ross of late, dating back to his performance against England in the Six Nations when the scrum was creaking even before Tom Court's arrival in Ross' stead.
And, when he was selected for the Fiji clash instead of using the game to see if Michael Bent can actually scrummage, it was obvious the management were looking for a performance that would represent an endorsement of their judgment.
The answer to their queries will be known come 4.0 on Saturday afternoon because Ross will certainly be tested in the game. One thing Argentina are not short of, as Anthony Foley emphasised this week, is quality front-row forwards.
Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo, who started against Ireland in both 2007 and 2010 (the last meeting between the sides), have been replaced by a regular trio of Leicester Tigers' Marcos Ayerza, Eusebio Guinazu and Montpellier's Juan Figallo, who will miss Saturday's game through suspension with Francisco Kodela of Biarritz likely to deputise.
"There are a lot of big men coming in and filling those boots (Ledesma et al) I'm afraid. There's a conveyor belt of them down there," said Foley this week.
The pressure will certainly be on Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss as well but, as ever, the success or otherwise of a scrum comes down to the tighthead being able to 'lock it' and ensure his scrum-half receives clean ball.
Behind Ross and his front-row colleagues, the Michael McCarthy-Donnacha Ryan axis will again provide the timber, while Peter O'Mahony (No 6) and Chris Henry (No 7) will flank team captain Heaslip, who must produce this weekend – especially in terms of inspiration and leadership.
His contribution against South Africa was deficient, as evidenced by his needless sin-binning which coincided with Ireland conceding 10 points, and then, after the game, his less than gracious attitude when interviewed on RTE television. Obviously sensitive after the loss he let his frustrations get the better of him, something he will have to exercise greater control over in the future.
He needs to provide stimulation to his colleagues and set an example for them to follow on Saturday, especially through his on-field actions, or Ireland could well find themselves toppling into the third tier of the IRB rankings and facing a very unpalatable RWC 2015 pool draw.
Ireland (probable v Argentina) – S Zebo, T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, C Gilroy, J Sexton, C Murray, C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, M McCarthy, D Ryan, P O'Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip (capt).