independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Tony Ward: Ireland capable of a November to remember

What would represent a reasonable yet realistic return from the upcoming autumn internationals? Two wins from three would be acceptable, although the middle match is being called a game between an 'Ireland XV' and Fiji in Limerick.

On the basis of only being as good as our last game, five months on and the pain of that Hamilton humiliation still lingers. And if it doesn't, it should. There is rarely any shame in losing to the All Blacks, home or away, but for a professional squad to leak 60 points and nine tries without registering a single response in 80 minutes is almost beyond comprehension.

The team to face South Africa in the first game has still to be announced, but the signs are that only six of those who started in Hamilton -- Brian O'Driscoll, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross and Donnacha Ryan -- look likely to do so again. The versatile Ryan is still in a tussle with fellow locks Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan for the two starting slots in the engine-room.

Declan Kidney has long backed O'Callaghan and O'Connell as his second- row pairing, but, despite O'Callaghan's encouraging early season industry for Munster, it would be a great injustice if Ryan (for me, the outstanding player of the precious few to shine on that summer tour to New Zealand) was overlooked.

The front five to face the Boks should read: Healy, Best, Ross; Ryan and O'Connell.

There are mixed views on Richardt Strauss' availability and, ironically, he could make his debut against the country of his birth. Though I fully acknowledge the widely held view that the three-year residency rule is a bit of a joke, if I was in Kidney's shoes my decision would be the same as his. After all, them's the rules.

The head coach is in a results-driven business and when a dynamic ball-carrier like Strauss becomes available for Ireland selection, it would be sheer lunacy not to pick him.

It is a tough call on Sean Cronin, already playing second fiddle to Strauss at Leinster, Mike Sherry and Damien Varley, who all drop down the pecking order as a result.

Quite whether it should be so is another question for another day, but I will qualify it by saying that so long as we never have a repeat of the Brian Smith dual nationality nonsense in the 1980s, then I, much like Kidney, can live with this.

I fully accept the counter-argument surrounding the development of home-grown players for the international stage, but for now we must all accept Strauss' inclusion by law and on playing merit.

It would be wrong for Kidney to parachute Strauss in ahead of the equally in-form Best and, as with Ryan, I would hope to see justice being done in the selection of what should be a nailed-on tight five to start.

Beyond that, there is room for manoeuvre. Assuming he is fit, Stephen Ferris will wear six, with Jamie Heaslip at No 8, but with Sean O'Brien gone, I think it a straight call between the in-form Chris Henry and versatile Peter O'Mahony for the No 7 slot. I have no issue either way. I love O'Mahony's temperament, but equally appreciate the more obvious continuity traits Henry might bring to the cause.

The key to back-row selection is as much about balance as it is about individual ability. There is an O'Brien-like dogged quality about O'Mahony that appeals, but here we will leave it to Gert Smal and Kidney to make what appears to be the most difficult forward decision by far.

Behind the scrum, on a horses-for-courses basis (ie physicality being of utmost importance against both Aviva opponents), the case for Conor Murray is valid. That said, Eoin Reddan is the form scrum-half selection alongside Sexton.

With O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy so comfortable in each other's company, I would leave well enough alone, placing Tommy Bowe (despite last night's full-back cameo) on his more familiar right flank. Kidney must then decide between the much-improved Simon Zebo, Keith Earls (if fit) and Andrew Trimble for the left.

HEADACHE

Despite injury and lack of game time Earls, like Bowe and Felix Jones, is central to what is undoubtedly the king-size headache facing Kidney at full-back.

If Jones is fit, and despite an obvious lack of match fitness, I would throw him in for the simple reason that he is the only natural available to Kidney in that position. There are aspects to his game in need of refinement, but in this emergency Jones IS the man.

Aside from O'Brien and Rob Kearney (for the record the last two recipients of European Rugby's Player of the Year award), we will be close to full strength. However, the loss of these two hardly needs elaboration.

Added to the hurt of Hamilton, it should lead to a fairly fired-up group in green in the weeks ahead. It's a huge ask, but given the circumstances (the South Africans look like being well below full strength), let's go for broke and aim for a three from three winning return.

Ulster have depth to rule the land once more

While clearly at Declan Kidney's behest, the fact that Ulster could alter their team so radically for a competitive match last night -- against the Dragons -- and still have players of the quality of Roger Wilson, John Afoa, Jared Payne, Paddy Jackson and new Ireland squad member Luke Marshall in reserve speaks volumes about where the northern province is now at.

Ulster's strength in depth illustrates exactly why they are moving into pole position as chief bearer of Ireland's European challenge. Last night at Rodney Parade, in order to give Tommy Bowe a full-back run, Mark Anscombe (pictured) fielded a back three of Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy.

By any standard, that is a potent attacking force and would be a match for almost any other combination around. At half-back, Ruan Pienaar shifted from nine to 10, leaving Paul Marshall to pick up where he left off against Castres a fortnight ago. Should either Marshall or Jackson ship an injury going forward, Anscombe would still be able to turn to the seasoned Springbok as cover for both half-backs.

Bear in mind also that Ulster's two talismanic figures -- Stephen Ferris and Johann Muller -- were missing from the trek to Wales.

Back in the 1980s Jimmy Davidson's 'Team Ulster' ruled the provinces. There are signs that we'll see a return of a Ravenhill dynasty.

Girls to get 'teenage kicks' at Railway

Over the school midterm break Railway Union RFC will be hosting a four-day 'Teenage Kicks' Halloween rugby camp for girls born between 1995 and 2001.

The camp will commence on Tuesday and continue through to Friday from 9.30 to 1.0 each day.

The focus of the camp will be on skill development, general movement, game awareness, as well as technical skills.

Match involvement will be touch or 'soft contact' rugby and will be primarily geared towards rugby Sevens (IRFU take note) culminating in a tournament on the final day.

The camp will be held at Park Avenue, Sandymount with refreshment packs and camp T-shirts provided for an all-in cost of €60. Further details available by calling 086 2775449 or book by email at: womensrugby@railwayunionrfc.com

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