French will place kidney's 'big plan' into sharp focus
Tonight in Bordeaux, the heat will be turned up significantly from Edinburgh seven days ago, as the Irish team's overall objective -- to hit New Plymouth on September 11 with all guns blazing and every squad member at optimum match fitness -- comes more sharply into focus.
This is probably the most difficult fixture of our warm-up series. The Irish team contains eight changes in personnel, plus one positional switch -- utility forward Donnacha Ryan moving from second-row to blindside flanker -- from the run-on XV at Murrayfield. Add in Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray on the bench, and it means some 33 members from a squad of 43 will have top-level game-time under their belts after tonight.
With Tommy Bowe, David Wallace and Brian O'Driscoll still to enter the fray -- Gordon D'Arcy and Stephen Ferris are unlikely to be available before the World Cup kick-off at the earliest -- the balance will undoubtedly swing from performance to result for the two Aviva games against France and England.
But first things first, and this evening's return to the scene of the World Cup disaster that was France '07.
Declan Kidney is making all the right soundings. Not for a minute do I doubt his sincerity when he says: "Every single time, winning is the most important thing. We're still disappointed about last weekend and will do our level best to win (in France), because otherwise you're dishonouring the jersey."
But then he goes on to talk about the "bigger plan" -- pool qualification and a place in the World Cup knockouts come the weekend of October 8/9.
If honourable defeat in the south of France is part of the preparatory process that takes us to that point, then who cares what the record books will show. So, for the second week running, performance is every bit as important as the result.
The fact that seven of tonight's starting line-up already have a full-blooded Test behind them gives us a certain advantage from the start.
However, the French, after five weeks of training, are champing at the bit to put all their hard graft to competitive effect. So, when acknowledged tinkerman Marc Lievremont suggests in the build-up that they are in "competitive mode", then you can be sure that this is the case and that, in the charged atmosphere of the Stade Chaban-Delmas, they will deliver a performance of real substance.
Bear in mind, too, that they have chosen the conservative route of just two pre-tournament friendlies and both of these are against Ireland. Thus, irrespective of the selection, it will be kitchen sink and all coming our way for two weeks running, and that is how Kidney would want it.
As to the chosen Irish XV for today's clash, well, we may not agree in every area, but it is a selection that encompasses the pragmatic use of scarce resources.
So, in specific terms, where are we?
Leaving the back three in situ for today's clash is as sensible as it is obvious, given the unavailability of Bowe and Geordan Murphy. Ironically, though, it could still be Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald competing for the final wing position alongside Keith Earls and Bowe on the flight to New Zealand.
Like Rob Henderson, I have been a long-time advocate of O'Driscoll completing his Test career one position in at inside centre. He is custom-made for the role, yet such has been his understanding and comfort alongside D'Arcy, allied to his innate ability to shoot so effectively from outside centre, that defensively, losing that yard or two of pace has not impacted one iota on his or Ireland's midfield play. The Ireland skipper is sensible enough to know when the time to tailor his expectations is right.
I still believe that outside centre is the best position for both Earls and Fitzgerald, despite the versatility shown by both. For Earls, the time is right to play him there now. Fitzgerald, though, will not be ready to play in this position until his confidence is fully restored.
Any combination of O'Driscoll at 12 with Earls or Fitzgerald (Fergus McFadden too) at 13 would have most midfield opposition in a tizzy. Hopefully, D'Arcy will make the cut, but if not, positioning O'Driscoll alongside Jonny Sexton or Ronan O'Gara in New Zealand looks a most effective and uncomplicated option.
Paddy Wallace is taking some heavy flak of late and it is not helping his confidence. It is imperative he delivers an assertive play-making performance this evening, otherwise the 'third out-half' criterion will no longer apply. Where to then for Kidney?
For Eoin Reddan, opportunity knocks to move into pole position for, arguably, our most troublesome slot, irrespective of the perceived embarrassment of scrum-half riches. I still feel that for Murray, like Felix Jones, World Cup 2011 might represent a step too far, too soon, but should either deliver under pressure in the Bordeaux cauldron this evening, then all bets are off.
Beyond that, we will look to the tight five to step up to the plate in terms of physicality, not least in the scrum. I don't know a lot about French debutant No 8 Raphael Lakafia, but I understand that he is a dynamic gain-line breaker and with the presence of clubmates Imanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvili alongside at seven and nine respectively, he should be to the manner born in this Biarritz triangle. Certainly this combination will test Ryan's defensive abilities as he looks to cover the Reddan/O'Gara/Wallace channel in and around the gain-line.
Ryan's selection on the flank, as with Mike McCarthy in Scotland, suggests grave concern for Ferris' fitness to make the cut. The signs are increasingly pointing that way.
We have a more than decent bench available tonight, so on the assumption the head coach exercises the 60-minute principle, the side in the final quarter could provide a strong indication as to his thinking for the two forthcoming, more result-driven home games.
Of course, a victory in Bordeaux would alleviate pressure for the fortnight ahead. Realistically, I cannot see that happening, but to tap into Kidney's "bigger plan" by way of a second spirited performance on the road, would do for now.