Henry's dream realised as 'fringe' benefits
THE final team selection of the season has produced the most intriguing Ireland line-up in living memory.
Six players with less than 10 caps will run out to face Australia at the Suncorp Stadium, including one debutant in Chris Henry at No 8, with four more sub 10-cappers on the bench, including hooker Damien Varley and back-row Rhys Ruddock, who will be hoping to join Henry in taking their international bows against the Wallabies. No one could have possibly predicted this 22 a few weeks ago and, though Declan Kidney's hand has been forced by an avalanche of withdrawals, this still represents a form selection by the Ireland coach, with players being rewarded for good performances over two tough weekends on tour.
Paddy Wallace getting the nod over Gordon D'Arcy at inside centre is a reflection of that, as is Tony Buckley starting ahead of John Hayes at tight-head prop. D'Arcy was in Melbourne this week to see a specialist regarding a groin problem and Hayes missed the Test against the All Blacks due to a virus complaint, but Kidney confirmed that both men were available to play.
"Gordon was good," confirmed Kidney. "He's got the nod several times during the year. Paddy got an opportunity in the second half of the Barbarians game after being out for a few weeks, sat out the New Zealand match, and then played well last week against the Maori. It's really more a case of giving Paddy a go because I feel he deserves it. We need to develop this squad ethic.
"I thought Tony had run well (against the All Blacks). John had picked up a virus earlier on in the trip. He came out and played the second half against the Maori and I felt he wasn't as sharp as he usually is. But the demands on John have been colossal and I thought Tony was going alright."
On the basis of tour form, Geordan Murphy and Dan Tuohy can feel unlucky to miss out at full-back and second-row respectively, but both Rob Kearney and Mick O'Driscoll are allowed the opportunity to bounce back from a tough experience against the All Blacks.
As the last line of defence, Kearney was exposed by Ireland being down to 14 men following Heaslip's dismissal in the first quarter, but he is a quality operator and it is not hard to recall his stunning display against Australia in Melbourne two years ago.
In the second row, O'Driscoll could not perform at his best against New Zealand due to a back spasm, forcing his early replacement by Tuohy, but the need for experience in a callow pack was stressed by forwards coach Gert Smal this week and the 31-year-old provides that in spades.
Jonathan Sexton benefits from a powerful display against the Maori, although Ronan O'Gara suffered from being forced to play behind a depleted pack versus New Zealand and may now have to settle for winning his 100th cap off the bench, rather than leading out the team as he would have wished.
Elsewhere, the side is along expected lines. Jerry Flannery trained yesterday and his calf injury has progressed well on tour but it was still reckoned to be too much of a gamble to be included.
In the absence of Flannery and Rory Best, it helps that the form of the hookers on tour has been particularly strong. Sean Cronin would have preferred his first start for Ireland to have been less of a collective calamity but, on an individual level, the Connacht man came through very strongly and deserves to retain the jersey.
Leinster's John Fogarty was excellent against the Maori and must have come close to a place in the 22, but Varley gets in before him on the basis of an eye-catching cameo in Rotorua and a season where he has come from the relative obscurity of being third-choice at Munster to the brink of his first cap.
The back row boasts only 10 caps between them and against Rocky Elsom and David Pocock that is a big ask. Kidney confirmed that Shane Jennings and Niall Ronan, both natural open-sides, will play left and right on Saturday and said the numbers on their backs were largely irrelevant, which recalls the Wallabies' similar use of George Smith and Phil Waugh a few years ago.
With such relative inexperience surrounding him, there is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of second-row Donncha O'Callaghan, who, with 62 caps to his name, has five more Ireland appearances than the rest of the forwards combined. O'Callaghan performed strongly against the All Blacks and has been a key figure on this tour -- on and off the pitch.
For Henry, Saturday is the realisation of a long-harboured dream and the Ulsterman paid tribute yesterday to the influence of his father Willie, who passed away earlier this year.
"It's been a dream probably since I was about five years old and I was running around the pitches of Malone Rugby Club, just around the corner from Ravenhill... so yeah it's definitely a big dream come true.
"Without a doubt my father was a massive influence. Sadly, he won't be here to watch it but all my family are at home very excited and it'll be a big day for us all."
Henry's elevation to the senior Ireland side is reward for his consistent excellence this season and he makes up an extremely mobile back row with Jennings and Ronan. Indeed, that is a characteristic of the entire team and one of the most encouraging aspects of their two matches to date has been the willingness to play heads-up rugby, backed up by high levels of fitness.
Whether it will be enough to beat a Wallabies side smarting from defeat to England remains to be seen and Kidney is looking for players who would not have been close to the senior side a few months ago to make a statement.
After winning the Grand Slam last year, Kidney set out to build a squad for the World Cup and, however it has come about, this team is a reflection of that goal. Saturday will reveal a great deal.