Cronin must get nod for Scots clash
In the search for balance and clarity, can we establish a very important point of information? To the uninitiated, an unforced error is an error made while under no pressure from an opponent.
Whatever about the litany of unforced errors in Rome -- think Brian O'Driscoll's misplaced passes to Fergus McFadden and you get the drift -- what transpired against France, however disappointing, was anything but unforced.
On the contrary, the level of intensity, with the home team laying down the early marker, was relentless. It made for a riveting contest, one littered with handling errors and turnovers, but precious few of the unforced variety.
Ireland set out with the only logical game plan -- putting the visitors under pressure. The French responded in kind, making for a fascinating physical confrontation from first whistle to last.
On balance, and despite conceding three tries, the side that did it better for longer eventually emerged victorious. Had we got in at the end there would have been few complaints from Les Bleus. The scenes of Gallic jubilation at the final blast of Dave Pearson's much-used whistle said it all.
And please may we be spared another bout of Irish moaning regarding the man in the middle. Post-Rome, the inference was that Romain Poite had it in for us at the scrum. He may have got some decisions wrong but he was impartial.
Last Sunday -- and yes, the penalty count did lean heavily the other way -- Pearson called it as he saw it. To suggest some sort of bias on his part represents paranoia on ours.
Refereeing is a thankless task at the best of times, but for those who get to the top, it reflects ability, integrity and temperament. No referee goes out to make life difficult for one side above the other.
Referees, like players, have different strengths and weaknesses, and video analysts attached to the various international teams dissect their idiosyncrasies ahead of kick-off. All that players and coaches ask for is consistency in interpretation for both sides.
No doubt, there will be some rules-obsessed anoraks out there who will argue otherwise on various decisions, but for anyone to point the finger of blame at Pearson for the amount of penalties against Ireland is delusional.
Penalties come primarily from pressure exerted by one team over the other. Declan Kidney will leave the referee as the last port of call in the search for the root cause of the high penalty count against his side.
Save for the opening salvo, it was the French in control for most of the first half. Yet, to their immense credit, it was Ireland ahead at the break. In the end, they could have got the result that no one would have begrudged them, least of all the French. And just for the record, Sean Cronin's handling error (when losing possession in the final minute close to the French line) was anything but unforced.
So where to from here? For starters, far from hindering confidence, Sunday's substantial performance should have boosted morale enormously. In planning out this Six Nations campaign, Kidney would have divided it into three separate segments.
Ireland have had an eight-day turnaround embracing Italy and France, followed by a two-week break leading into Scotland at Murrayfield in a stand-alone game, followed then by another fortnight break before Wales away and England at home just seven days apart. By the time we reach the Millennium Stadium the plan (injury permitting) would be to hit the final two-game straight at full throttle. To that end, I do feel a window of opportunity offers itself for measured change for Edinburgh.
On the assumption Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris are all available, I would give all three the nod from the off. Bowe for Fergus McFadden and Trimble for Keith Earls would not reflect on the performance of the incumbent wings one iota. But if Kidney is sincere in his desire to develop a genuinely competitive squad ahead of September's World Cup, then this game offers that opportunity.
A case could also be made for Paddy Wallace (or indeed McFadden) at inside-centre, based on the need for (starting) game time, but I would leave the current combination intact.
However, at half-back I would make changes in both positions to face the Scots. Here again, it is no reflection on Jonathan Sexton's form, but Ronan O'Gara's second-half input in the two games to date warrants a starting role in one game at least.
If the desire is to have two players competing on a level playing field for every position, then that must be reflected in varied selection. This is important in maintaining a fully committed and contented squad.
Eoin Reddan should start at scrum-half. We have four No 9s, with Reddan and Peter Stringer broadly along similar lines and Tomas O'Leary closer to Isaac Boss in terms of a more belligerent presence at the base of the scrum. Reddan to start with O'Leary in reserve would be my call to face the Scots.
I would leave both starting props (Cian Healy and Mike Ross) in situ but give Cronin a start. I would also leave the second-row pairing in place, making for just one change (at hooker) in the tight five.
In the back-row, the search for balance will hot up even more given Ferris' likely availability. He will come in on the blind-side with Jamie Heaslip at No 8, leaving it a straight call between Sean O'Brien and the equally in-form David Wallace at open-side.
Tough though it would be on the latter, four into three won't go, and I would pick O'Brien.