Kidney defends gamble on weary warriors
IF it is possible to be conservative and gamble in one sitting, then Ireland coach Declan Kidney has managed it with his 33-man squad for Ireland's summer tour to New Zealand and Australia.
Conservative in that this is an 'as you were' selection, based around the core of the unbeaten Grand Slam-winning squad from 2009, with the emphasis on hard-headed experience for what promises to be an arduous expedition.
And a gamble in that it includes Paul O'Connell and John Hayes.
With the imperative of making a worthwhile trip to countries where Ireland have not recorded an international victory since 1979, the argument for leaving behind the likes of David Wallace, Brian O'Driscoll and other front-line Lions never held water.
Ireland need their heavyweights for this trip, to attempt to strike a psychological blow looking down the road to the next World Cup and, not least, because New Zealand and Australia would have been disgruntled if they did not get Ireland's full monty.
However, the case for leaving O'Connell at home was strong. The Munster second-row has been engaged in a worrying battle with a groin injury since Ireland's final Six Nations Championship outing against Scotland on March 20 and allowing him time to make a full recovery over a protracted period made considerable sense heading into World Cup year.
Such is his importance to Ireland's cause that running the risk of further complications on a tough trip to the southern hemisphere is a big call. Against that, even if his involvement is constrained, O'Connell's inclusion and presence within the camp is a powerful statement of intent.
John Hayes latest Irish sojourn carries on a remarkable story that has run for 11 seasons and 102 caps. The Cappamore man has been one of the cornerstones of a decade of Irish rugby achievement but Hayes, who turns 37 in November, has struggled this season -- in the Six Nations and in Munster's season-defining defeats to Biarritz and Leinster.
Although he has clearly been ear-marked as Ireland's first-choice tight-head up until and including the World Cup, he is being increasingly targeted by opponents and a Plan B has not been successfully developed.
Locking the scrum at tight-head is a starting point for any side and remains a problem for forwards coach Gert Smal. Mike Ross is the best scrummaging tight-head available to the national side but has not made the travelling party, largely due to the presence of Leinster's overseas pair of CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright.
While Kidney said that he understood why provinces "do what they do" when it comes to selecting overseas players, he acknowledged that "when you're going to New Zealand or Australia you want fellahs to be match fit, so it does give players a bit of an advantage but it doesn't rule anyone out".
The Ireland coach expressed his optimism that O'Connell would make it through the tour successfully and argued that Hayes' career would be better served this summer by him travelling rather than resting.
"You try and give every player, every chance to play, especially someone of Paul's calibre," said Kidney. "He hasn't been ruled out yet which is why he's been named. There's a week or two before we travel so we'll give him every chance we can.
"And there's no empirical evidence to say that four months away from the game would improve John (Hayes) as a player in terms of a pre-season. At his age you're probably better off playing.
"We'll mind him on the tour in the same we'll mind all the other guys but we want to try and progress the side too."
Kidney has, essentially, selected two full teams with a scrum-half, hooker and prop roaming spare. A squad of this capacity is necessary for a four-match assignment that takes in the Barbarians, the All Blacks, Maoris and Australia on successive weekends with only three uncapped tourists in Dan Tuohy, Fergus McFadden and Chris Henry.
Denis Hurley, Gavin Duffy and Fionn Carr can deem themselves unlucky to miss out but in the likes of Shane Horgan and Andrew Trimble, Kidney has gone with the been-there brigade. As well as O'Connell, Rory Best, Jerry Flannery, and a selection of others have had injury issues recently of various seriousness and Kidney confirmed that a panel of 13 players were on stand-by, as well as "one or two others" due to the numbers of bangs and knocks.
All in all, it is a battle-hardened party that heads south and Kidney rightly dismissed the notion of resting some of his Lions after 12 months of toil, while pointing out that there is still a clutch of players in the squad who are finding their way at this level.
"We are going to play countries that are ranked number one and three in the world. It's not like we have resources that we can just leave a whole team behind us.
"If you give the tour to all younger fellahs as the (Magners) League has shown in the last 12 months, it is very difficult for them to show themselves to good effect. Younger guys need experienced guys around them too to progress. We have tried to get that mixture and remember guys like Kevin McLaughlin, John Muldoon, Sean Cronin, they don't have a whole lot of (international) game time under their belts so (with Tuohy, McFadden and Henry) that's six or seven out of a group of 33 that have to come through."
This is a selection that lets New Zealand and Australia know Ireland mean business on this expedition.
It is just to be hoped that this business does not mean backward steps for O'Connell or Hayes.
Ireland squad -- Forwards: R Best (Ulster), 39 caps, T Buckley (Munster), 17, T Court (Ulster), 7, S Cronin (Connacht), 2, J Flannery (Munster), 36, J Hayes (Munster), 102, C Healy (Leinster), 7, J Heaslip (Leinster), 26, C Henry (Ulster), 0, M Horan (Munster), 66, S Jennings (Leinster), 7, K McLaughlin (Leinster), 1, J Muldoon (Connacht), 2, D O'Callaghan (Munster), 61, P O'Connell (Munster), 70, M O'Driscoll (Munster), 17, D Tuohy (Ulster), 0, D Wallace (Munster) 62.
Backs: T Bowe (Ospreys), 30, G D'Arcy (Leinster), 48,K Earls (Munster), 10, S Horgan (Leinster), 66, R Kearney (Leinster), 23, F McFadden (Leinster), 0, G Murphy (Leicester), 66, B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), 101, R O'Gara (Munster), 98, T O'Leary (Munster)16, E Reddan (Leinster) 20, J Sexton (Leinster, 6, P Stringer (Munster), 91, A Trimble (Ulster), 27, P Wallace (Ulster) 62.