Muldoon's chance to impress Kidney in 'audition'
WITH the Test against the All Blacks looming large, it is possible to extract all manner of conclusions from Ireland's team for tomorrow's meeting with the Barbarians at Thomond Park. Possible, but unwise.
Mitigating factors, such as the inevitable "bumps and bruises" and the need to rest players who experienced the intensity of cup final rugby last weekend, influenced Declan Kidney's selections and the upshot is 15 changes from the team that ran out in Ireland's last international against Scotland in March.
However, while the side is largely made up of players who will play supporting roles to the Test XV over the next three weeks, there are a handful who will see tomorrow evening as audition night, with a starting place against the All Blacks the grand prize. Foremost among them is John Muldoon.
Injuries to Stephen Ferris, Kevin McLaughlin, Denis Leamy, Sean O'Brien and Donnacha Ryan have created a gaping hole on Ireland's blindside flank and the Connacht captain is at the head of the queue to fill it. While the game is ostensibly an exhibition match, the stakes are high for Muldoon and coming through with a strong performance against a back-row of the quality and experience of Xavier Rush, George Smith and, Muldoon's greatest obstacle, Alan Quinlan would constitute a powerful Test argument.
Marcus Horan is another player with designs on starting against New Zealand and he has the opportunity to make the case for experience over the exuberance of his main rival Cian Healy, who is not in the match-day 22, with Tom Court providing cover off the bench.
Horan faces a formidable opponent in the giant Biarritz tight-head Census Johnston and if he passes that test, he will have done his chances of reclaiming the Ireland No 1 jersey no harm.
Just as at blindside, there is a vacant slot in the Test second-row next to Donncha O'Callaghan following injuries to Paul O'Connell and Leo Cullen, and the starting pair of Dan Tuohy and Ed O'Donoghue will be throwing some selection shapes against the Baa-Baas.
Mick O'Driscoll, as the most experienced second-row in the touring party, looks favourite to replace O'Connell for Ireland, just as he did successfully for Munster this season, but Tuohy has had a big year up north and has the physical presence needed for this summer's expedition. Tuohy will also try to bring his loose game to bear as the Ireland management like him as a No 6 and he is, potentially, the strongest rival to Muldoon for that Test berth.
In the backline, Ronan O'Gara starting ahead of Sexton at 10 could be taken a couple of ways. One interpretation is that Brian O'Driscoll was never going to play in this fixture and Kidney needed a captain. The other is that O'Gara's ability to control a match will be called upon against the All Blacks and this is an opportunity to get in the groove for the tougher test eight days later.
It's hard to know which is the case, but the fact O'Gara is partnered by Peter Stringer could suggest Kidney may be looking to continue with Jonathan Sexton and Tomas O'Leary as his Test half-backs. Of course, nothing may be decided yet, and both men are likely to have significant pitch-time to hold their hands up, while Stringer's speed of passing should aid O'Gara's cause.
Full-back Rob Kearney would waltz into most Test teams in the world, but he has quality competition in the shape of Leicester's Geordan Murphy. After the physically and emotionally draining experience of leading the Tigers to the English Premiership title last weekend, the Kildare man does not feature in the squad, but he is the man in possession and Kearney will be determined to prove his worth against the Baa-Baas, particularly with ball in hand.
A somewhat surprising inclusion, given that he is not a member of the touring party for New Zealand and Australia, is Connacht's Gavin Duffy who starts at outside centre. Kidney said this did not mean the Mayo man would be making the flight next Saturday, but Duffy, who has been training with the squad in Limerick, would be a useful addition to the party given that he carries good form with him and has the ability to play along the backline from scrum-half out.
"No, not at the moment," said Kidney, when asked would Duffy be making the trip south. "Gavin has been training with us, he's there on standby. Paddy (Wallace) is just working his way back in. He's made such good progress maybe he could play 80 minutes."
Kidney also revealed he was open to the possibility of two of his players being co-opted into the New Zealand Barbarians side who play the Maoris the same day Ireland take on the All Blacks.
"If lads can play, they enjoy tours more," he said. "It all depends on fitness."
The fact that his players could also provide first-hand knowledge of the workings of a Maoris side that will provide a Test-worthy examination the following week is another solid reason for facilitating the move.
O'Gara said he was relishing the opportunity of captaining his country again, but joked that he had mixed feelings about the prospect of facing his close friend Quinlan -- a man he has not faced since their All-Ireland League clashes in the late 1990s when O'Gara lined out for Cork Constitution and Quinlan played with Shannon.
"I think I'll see the real Quinny this weekend. It's my first time playing against him in 12 or 13 years. I have a great relationship with him and he has a heart of gold -- but he can torment people. That's the way he plays and he's very effective. I think he's disappointed not to be going on the tour, so I think he has a point to prove as well," said O'Gara.
Quinlan is not alone in that regard and a sold-out Thomond could have a decent evening's entertainment, while Kidney should have a few more pointers for the real Test the following weekend.