Kidney cannot afford to experiment for world cup
As thoughts now turn towards the Autumn Series and the South African challenge comes sharply into view, it is time to assess the objectives, the options and the likely plan of action for Declan Kidney ahead of a fixture schedule embracing four physically demanding Tests on successive November weekends for the first time.
Naturally, the Springboks and All Blacks matches, probably in reverse order (with respect to the reigning world champions), leap out but if the Samoans travel with anything close to a full tank then they, along with the Argentinian visit to close the series, will offer little room for physical respite. Whatever else, the November Series is guaranteed to test Irish rugby in intensity and strength in depth.
The application of the squad game is key in the modern era but Ireland must seize the day and that means fielding the strongest available side at each time of asking. For Kidney, Gert Smal and co, it necessitates balancing physical exertion with knocks and bruises in search of the most effective combination for each successive game. The option of experimentation with a view to New Zealand 2011 simply doesn't exist. Selection for each of the four games must be measured and based on the here and now.
It is a difficult balancing act but Kidney's track record proves he has the wherewithal to get it right. The overall objective -- and what makes this season different from the last few years -- is in linking together four distinct segments, thereby ensuring one feeds into the other, starting with the Autumn Internationals as a precursor to the Six Nations, then building gradually towards the four pre-World Cup internationals on successive weekends in August, feeding finally into the main September/October event itself.
It is a huge ask of everyone involved, demanding sensible and balanced use of an extended squad, as well as a huge dollop of luck, specifically in terms of injuries. Knowing Kidney and Paul McNaughton as I do, I would expect the overall message from the off to be: 'Forget 2011, our World Cup begins here and now.' We have 17 highly competitive internationals coming up over the next 11 months, without factoring in advancement from the pool to the knock-out stages.
So, what can we expect in the coming weeks? Well, for starters, facing a Springbok side under pressure from a disappointing Tri Nations campaign could be every bit as dangerous on the scoreboard as the predictable physicality itself. Beware the backlash from a side that has lost in Dublin on its last three visits. It is also a squad minus its iconic skipper John Smit, and one that has strayed from its tried and trusted route-one to victory in search of the more fluent off-loading game -- embraced much more efficiently and far more effectively by New Zealand and Australia in the most recent southern hemisphere campaign.
Yet, for all the optimism that the Boks' poor Tri Nations series engenders, it is imperative Ireland do not get sucked into trying to match their expansive game without laying the forward foundations first. Against the Boks you earn respect and, by extension, success through meeting them head on at scrum, ruck and maul and, most pertinently, all around the fringes at the gain line. These two games against South Africa and New Zealand are our last chance against Tri Nation opposition to lay down a 'not to be treated lightly' marker ahead of next year's World Cup.
It is not, and I emphasise this point strongly, that we are not equipped to embrace the new-found Tri Nations fluidity. Quite the opposite in fact. We have in Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls individuals made for the evolving counter-attacking game that stricter appliance of the breakdown and offside laws presents.
The Welsh often refer to their off-loading interpretation as 'the Welsh way'. As of now, I'm not too sure there is an 'Irish way'. The danger is in copying the All Blacks and Wallabies. The Irish way -- as the Springboks have surely discovered -- is in striking the balance between doing the fundamentals well (ie line-out and scrum) and enabling our two pragmatic out-halves to mix and match accordingly. That is heads-up, intelligent rugby, playing to your most obvious strengths when paving the way for, in Ireland's case, the aforementioned free-running four.
To that end, picking a core of experience in all four upcoming games is not merely an option but is an essential for Ireland to create a springboard for this demanding season. Even professionalism has not yet delivered the strength in depth required to meet and beat the top guns consistently.
The overall aim will of course be to take all four November scalps. Goals and objectives are important but they must be realistically set to ensure some level of achievement. To that end, I suspect that the private thoughts of the Irish management will centre on taking two from two against the Samoans and Pumas, and one from two against the heavy brigade. If that one happened to be New Zealand for the first time ... manna from heaven!
Realistically, a win against the Boks, making it four on the bounce against them to equal our best against one of the 'Big Three' (versus Australia between 1958 and 1968) seems the more likely but, as ever, hope springs eternal.
As for the first-up team? Both Fitzgerald and David Wallace appear back in the frame. Once Fitzgerald fronts up in training, he will take up his position on the left, with Wallace competing against the in-form Sean O'Brien and, to a marginally lesser extent, Denis Leamy for the final back-row slot alongside Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip. The call is Kidney's based on balance and the modus operandi as he perceives it on the day.
Whatever your take, it is difficult to argue with the main man who seldom gets it wrong.
More honesty, less spin for injury assessments
Perhaps it is on the back of the recent Henry Shefflin affair, but I really do find the spin surrounding injury a little difficult to take. I am thinking specifically of Brian O'Driscoll and Keith Earls here. When O'Driscoll pulled up holding his hamstring against Racing Metro it was patently obvious to anyone who has suffered the injury that an immediate return (hints from the Leinster camp that he would line out the following week at Wembley against Saracens) was beyond even the mightiest one.
Recovering from a hamstring twinge, never mind a strain or tear, is a slow process requiring rest and intensive rehabilitation. Quite what psychological advantage is perceived through hinting at availability in the build-up to any game is beyond me. Any injured player will be targeted by the opposition ... period. Point being, a little more honesty and a lot less spin would be appreciated in the assessment of player injury.
In relation to Earls, his (ankle) injury and recovery has not been helped by the indiscipline and subsequent suspension of both overseas Munster centres. Earls has been pressed back into action when he appears far from right. Ahead of the Autumn Series, the medicine (R&R) for O'Driscoll has been on the button. If only Earls could have followed suit.