Ross and Toner can lay platform to nullify kiwis
PICKING a team capable of taking on the All Blacks is a hazardous exercise at the best of times, but after two unconvincing showings against South Africa and Samoa, the task facing Ireland coach Declan Kidney is particularly exacting.
With New Zealand not expected to name their side until Thursday, Kidney indicated he may delay the announcement until the same day to deny the All Blacks any preparation advantage, but whoever is selected, Ireland will go in as overwhelming underdogs.
Let us start with the probabilities, which are likely to revolve around the players that secured the Grand Slam last year. Jamie Heaslip will be at No 8, bristling with determination following his red card in June. Alongside him, Denis Leamy and Sean O'Brien battled hard against Samoa, but neither produced the dominant performance necessary to dislodge Stephen Ferris and David Wallace.
Brian O'Driscoll will be in midfield, most likely next to Gordon D'Arcy and, with Rob Kearney expected back in training today, Kidney could well revert to the Grand Slam back three of Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing.
There will be calls for Geordan Murphy to be restored at full-back and the Leicester man carries an attacking vigour that Ireland have yet to emulate this November. However, with club commitments precluding Murphy's involvement up to now, the chances of Kidney catapulting him straight back into the team appear slim.
There is a strong argument for retaining Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer at half-back after decent displays against Samoa and, if Ireland opt for a practical, batten-down-the-hatches approach against superior opposition, O'Gara is the man to kick the corners.
However, while Stringer may hold on ahead of Eoin Reddan, Kidney could well revert to Jonathan Sexton -- the first time Stringer will have been partnered with the Leinster No 10.
Donncha O'Callaghan will fill one second-row slot, but the No 5 jersey is up for grabs. Mick O'Driscoll wore it against South Africa but had an unhappy time against the imperious Victor Matfield, while Donnacha Ryan is in the mix also after doing well off the bench over the last two weekends. Kidney could well go with Ryan, but if the requirement is for secure line-out possession, then Devin Toner is the logical selection after an impressive first outing. Leo Cullen would bring an element of leadership -- as well as line-out ability -- to the pack, but the Leinster captain has yet to be involved, which could stand against him.
Which leaves us with the front-row. Sean Cronin was one of Ireland's better performers last Saturday, but the front-row of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tom Court looks favourite to start against the All Blacks. However, if Kidney wants guaranteed solidity after two weak scrummaging performances, then Mike Ross should be brought straight in at tight-head.
Ross is a player who needs regular game time to be at his most effective and it was a mistake not to involve him in the first two Tests. Nonetheless, he could do what is badly required -- lock the scrum -- against the vulnerable Tony Woodcock, with Court being brought off the bench after 50-60 minutes
Much to ponder but, as we said last week (and as was reinforced last Saturday) you start with primary possession and build from there -- that means playing Ross and Toner.
HUGH FARRELLY'S TEAM TO FACE ALL BLACKS -- R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; R O'Gara, P Stringer; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D O'Callaghan, D Toner; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, T Court, D Ryan, S O'Brien, E Reddan, J Sexton, G Murphy.