Kidney has little to fear against struggling Boks
Published 02/11/2010 | 05:00
Judging by Saturday's pulsating clash between Australia and New Zealand in Hong Kong, the northern hemisphere teams are in for a rough ride in the coming weeks.
If the Wallabies and the All Blacks can repeat the unshackled, incessant attacking rugby they produced in the Far East, then they are going to be extremely tough for any European side to live with.
Much will depend on a consistent standard of refereeing but, if Alain Rolland's performance last Saturday is to be the yardstick, then we are in for a fascinating pre-World Cup clash of the hemispheres over the next few weeks.
Quite what relevance the All Blacks' defeat has, I'm not sure. On the one hand, it removes the incentive of a world-record 18 Test wins on the bounce -- they had won 15 in a row before last weekend.
Against that, it sets a Home Nations clean sweep as the main objective for Graham Henry's men ahead of next year's World Cup.
To enter 2011 with an aura of invincibility -- save for Saturday's blip at the death -- would represent a massive psychological advantage for the world's No 1 team ahead of a World Cup, on home soil, that they dare not lose.
To that end, this tour carries real weight, irrespective of the final outcome in Hong Kong. I suspect Ireland's finest will have been positively salivating at the challenge as they watched on TV on Saturday morning.
Filling stadiums is a problem for every sporting organisation these days. The IRFU, for all the ongoing on-field success, is struggling -- and doing itself few PR favours.
More's the pity because over the next four weekends they have four very viable products to sell. However, overhype the Springboks and All Blacks and we risk underestimating the Samoans and Pumas at our peril.
Declan Kidney knows the score better than anyone. There may be no World Cup on the line, but this year's November series has added bite. The games are nicely pitched too, with the Springboks first up; though not quite in turmoil, the world champions are still some distance (relative to the Wallabies and All Blacks) from where they would like to be.
We will not tempt fate in suggesting they are there for the taking, but certainly an extremely poor Tri Nations campaign, allied to much-publicised internal strife as well as a top-heavy domestic season, hints that this might be a tour too far.
Stephen Ferris meant well when saying Victor Matfield wouldn't have taken the South African touring captain's armband if he didn't think they had a great squad to lead.
However, the Ferris comments were very much from the diplomatic corps' manual. To captain the Springboks is the ultimate honour for any South African player. Could you seriously imagine any player ever turning it down?
It should also be remembered that Natal Sharks and Western Province players, involved in Currie Cup final action last weekend, will barely be ensconced in the Springbok camp before setting out for Dublin on Thursday. To that end, rest, proper preparation, organisation, not to mention home advantage (with this being the first rugby international at the new Aviva Stadium) are all in favour of the hosts.
Opportunity knocks for Kidney's squad to hit the November series running before mixing and matching selection against Samoa in the lead-in to the main event (with due respect to South Africa) against New Zealand on November 20. But it's one game at a time and at lunchtime today the head coach will announce his starting line-up to face the Boks.
On the assumption Brian O'Driscoll is fit, I expect the areas of most managerial debate to have been around left-wing, inside-centre, scrum-half and open-side flanker.
It will be one from Luke Fitzgerald, Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls for the No 11 shirt. If all are fit and firing, then the choice should be made in that order.
If Fitzgerald is not 100pc, then Trimble has earned the right to be recalled.
The call at inside-centre and scrum-half could be inter-related, pending the type of game Kidney wants to play. If the aim is to follow the Wallaby and All Black lead, then the case for Eoin Reddan's high-tempo fringe attacking, allied to Paddy Wallace's creativity, is substantial.
I suspect Kidney may opt for a compromise of sorts, with Reddan at No 9 in the absence of the injured Tomas O'Leary, and Gordon D'Arcy No 12, thereby making for a near full Leinster backline save for Tommy Bowe on the right.
However, Peter Stringer rubber-stamped his challenge and consistent form of late with another fine showing for Munster in Belfast. That said, the mere fact he was made available to Tony McGahan would appear to indicate the Cork man is off the radar for Saturday, but with Kidney you just never know.
In the back row, one from Sean O'Brien, David Wallace and Denis Leamy looks set to accompany Ferris and Jamie Heaslip -- and again, it should be in that order.
Whatever side Kidney chooses, the bits and pieces appear in place to establish early Autumn series momentum. How often can we say that when facing the reigning world champions next up?