Defining year sees spotlight on Kidney's every move
Battle in Rome could set the tone for Ireland's World Cup ambitions, writes George Hook
There is a real sense of history repeating itself in Irish rugby, as Declan Kidney seems so far to be following the Eddie O'Sullivan plan of early success followed by conservative selection before imploding in the World Cup.
Kidney's problem is arguably more difficult next September, as he will enter the competition with an ageing team and less options in many positions. Kidney is a better diplomat and man-manager than his predecessor, so it is probable that he will not meet the same fate.
Most importantly, he has an immeasurably easier draw in the group stages. In France, Ireland faced the hosts and Argentina at the peak of their powers. This time around Australia will be just as difficult as France were four years ago, but Italy in the final group match will present nothing like the challenge the Pumas gave Ireland. Also Namibia and Georgia were more obdurate opponents than the USA and Russia are likely to be this time around. The easier group and Kidney's superior management skills will ensure that the squad is rotated and be fitter and more focused for the final group game in Dunedin.
That game on South Island gives next Saturday's opener in the Six Nations added piquancy. In a worst-case World Cup scenario one could see then as now, a depleted Ireland needing to win the last game to progress to the knock-out stage. Italy's history in the championship has been one of being at their best in the early games and, as injury takes its toll, becoming increasingly less competitive. Nick Mallett, the coach, will have targeted this game as his best chance of a win, which could get him off the bottom of the table and more importantly gain an important psychological advantage for the autumn.
Nobody expects Ireland to lose so the only question to be answered is, is there a way that Italy can win? Although the teams have yet to be selected it would be incomprehensible if Mike Ross were not given a start. If Ross performs up to expectations then that goes some way to trumping Mallet's hand of a front row of Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Salvatore Perugini with Fabio Ongaro and Andrea Lo Cicero to come off the bench. I suspect too much has been made of the arrival of Ross. Although the tight-head has a crucial role in locking the scrum, there are two others in the front row. Cian Healy is average in the set-piece and Sean Cronin, the likely hooker, does not give the stability of a Jerry Flannery or Rory Best. If Ross survives, and I contend that the jury is still out, then he can look forward, like John Hayes before him, to playing every minute of the championship.
The Italy game plan will not have changed a whit from last year. They will try and dominate up front and hope that the backs can hang on. That plan has been boosted by the return to full fitness of No 8 Sergio Parisse. Mallett has lost his first-choice out-half Craig Gower, who promised much last season, and will have to depend on the slightly flaky Luciano Orquera. However, the coach did spring a surprise in his squad by naming another Italian-qualified Australian out-half, Kristopher Burton of Treviso.
Italy also appear to have solved the goal-kicking weakness that has plagued them since the retirement of Diego Dominguez. In the Autumn International defeat of Fiji, winger Mirco Bergamasco kicked eight penalties out of eight. Although his brother Mauro will miss the Ireland game, the kicking prowess of the younger brother may be seen as a fair trade by Italian fans.
Comparisons between the performance of Italy and Ireland before Christmas are instructive. Argentina won in Verona but lost at the Aviva. Italy's only try was in the final minutes of the game by the penalty-try route, where the much-vaunted Puma scrum was penalised. However, had Parisee's kick-and-chase in the opening minute yielded a try, then many neutral observers believe the result could have been different.
If Italy had difficulty scoring tries then Ireland were no different against the same opponents.
A lone try by Stephen Ferris was all Kidney's men could manage against an under-strength Argentina chained to an ultra-conservative game plan. It all points to a war of attrition in Rome and that can only narrow the odds in favour of a home win.
An Irish defeat would be a disaster and this match is about Kidney's selection and the performance of second-tier players. At fullback the choice of Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls would be a sign of the old Kidney and the mindgames he loves. Gavin Duffy, having come through a full 80 minutes for the Wolfhounds, should start. That will allow the coach to select the other two players in their best, if not preferred positions on the wing. The back line would bristle with intent and a Leinster half-back combination of Jonny Sexton and Eoin Reddan would threaten Italy where they are weakest.
If Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace make the starting gate over Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, then Kidney will be giving hostages to fortune, much like his predecessor did in the build-up to the last World Cup.
Four years ago we started the Six Nations with protestations by the squad and coach that the World Cup could be won. This time around expectations will be much more grounded in reality, but Kidney will be under much more scrutiny. A win in Rome with an imaginative selection and game plan would settle a lot of nerves.
Sunday Indo Sport