Sunday 30 April 2017

Eddie O'Sullivan: Heat is on

This is what Americans would call 'gut-check time' in the Six Nations. Incredible though it might seem after just one defeat in 14 months, Ireland pretty much find themselves in a London pressure-chamber today. Because this campaign, frankly, can go one of two ways for both coaches at Twickenham.

England's figures of two from two clearly flatter Martin Johnson and he knows that the media will scent blood if his side gets turned over on home territory. Declan Kidney is, obviously, nowhere near as vulnerable. But he will be aware that defeat today could change the emotional dynamic around this Irish team.

I'm not privy to the conversations that took place between Declan and his two demoted players, Leo Cullen and Ronan O'Gara, prior to Tuesday's team announcement. But I do know they will have been difficult and a little uncomfortable.

Maybe ROG's case was pretty well flagged with Jonny Sexton now looking increasingly emboldened as a natural heir apparent to the coveted No 10 shirt. But Cullen won't have seen this coming. Or, if he did, he maybe has a future reading tarot cards.

One of my worst experiences as Irish coach was telling Leo that he had not made the 2003 World Cup squad. It was a terribly tight call and Leo was, naturally, devastated. He believed himself to be a better player than my preferred choice, Gary Longwell, and we had an extremely strained exchange over the decision.

I've known Leo since he played junior cup rugby at Blackrock College. He's a bright and ferociously determined guy and I was, effectively, taking a wrecking ball to his world. He sought an explanation and didn't really buy the one I gave him. "Because I think he's a better player than you at the moment, Leo," I said.

I did too. But Leo left the room angry, no resolution really possible.

His predicament isn't quite as stark today, given that he could yet play a pivotal role off the Twickenham bench. But I am a little startled that he's not in the starting XV. It seemed to me that any difficult decisions facing Declan were all behind the scrum. But he opted to make one in the forwards.

surprise

Dropping Leo for Donncha O'Callaghan was, to say the least, a surprise. To me, Leo has performed extremely well in the first two outings and some might even say he has been the stand-out player in Ireland's front five.

No doubt he will have been left upset and, quite possibly, confused by his demotion. It has to be a bitter pill to swallow after two big performances and I doubt anything Declan might have said in explanation -- regardless of how reasonably it might have been presented -- will have dulled the pain of frustration.

Donncha must be a little surprised to be starting. I say that not for a second doubting his ability to deliver in this domain. He is a world-class lock and a fantastic warrior. I just think it is a huge ask to start against England after five weeks on the treatment table.

After all, he wasn't included in Munster's Magner's League squad last weekend, presumably on the basis that he wasn't deemed fit enough. One week later, he is ready to start against England at Twickenham?

I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect it would have been wiser to put him on the bench and spring him as an impact player.

There is definitely the sense that use of substitutes could be vitally important today. I suspect the game could go right to the wire, just as our '06 encounter did when Shane Horgan famously stretched over for a last-minute try that won the Triple Crown.

Up in the stand, Niall O'Donovan and I were pretty much preparing ourselves for the heartbreak of a narrow defeat when the team got possession deep in our own half with just three minutes left on the clock. The rest is history.

I still see it in little snapshots. ROG's deft chip; Brian O'Driscoll's take and offload to Horgan; two rucks forming; Peter Stringer's sublimely floated pass; the 'Hand of Horgan' grounding the ball on the England goal line. Twickenham suddenly a bowl of green.

The punters had travelled en masse to London on the back of a record St Patrick's week at the Cheltenham Festival. There, they had beaten the bookies. Now, we had done the same.

It was out third successive win over the then World Champions and our second Triple Crown in three years. There are few things sweeter for an Irish rugby team than beating the auld enemy at rugby's headquarters and this victory had added sugar.

That had been a difficult Championship, you see. We had come off a disappointing autumn series, losing to New Zealand and Australia, beating Romania unconvincingly. We'd then struggled to put Italy away in Dublin and fallen a mortifying 40 points behind in Paris before that 'Lazarus' recovery that came up short. We'd easily beaten a Wales team in mid-Championship disarray, but then scrambled to a 15-9 win over Scotland in a Lansdowne Road monsoon.

Essentially, we'd been plodding along.

Beating England changed the whole complexion of our campaign. It meant we'd won four out of five and finished second to France on points difference.

That Horgan try was the difference between England finishing second or fourth. They'd been taking a pounding from their media and I vividly remember shaking hands with their coach, Andy Robinson, afterwards. You could see the devastation in his eyes and, being brutally honest, I thought to myself 'There but for the grace of God...'

I see similarities between the context of that game and today's. Should Ireland win, the Paris performance will be seen as 'a blip' and the team could kick on to a possible Championship and Triple Crown. But a loss could be ruinous. It would mean that the final two games against Scotland and Wales would assume colossal significance.

Injuries always create a selection headache, but injuries combined with a loss quickly become a coach's migraine. To that end, Declan has had to make some extremely difficult decisions.

In the backs, for example, Geordan Murphy's inclusion is not far off as perilous as the change at lock. He's just recovered from a serious shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for five months.

For all his experience and big-game savvy, I've no doubt that England will make it a priority of theirs today to test him in contact.

Sexton's selection suggests that Declan believes him now ready to stake a permanent claim on the out-half berth. If he delivers today, as he did last autumn, I think he will be very hard to shift.

Rory Best's selection was a no-brainer, as was Sean Cronin's as a replacement. Tony Buckley's inclusion on the bench over Tom Court has more to do with his ability to play both sides of the scrum rather than anything Court did wrong.

balance

And that bench is back in balance now at Paddy Wallace's expense.

Andrew Trimble can cover centre and wing, while Keith Earls can drop to full-back with the minimum of disruption.

That said, Shane Horgan has to be disappointed not to get a jersey, given his ability (like Trimble) to cover both wings and centre, allied to his impressive strike rate against England.

There is always the chance that England might just click today. It happened in my last Test as Irish coach, a painful 10-33 loss to a Danny Cipriani-inspired team. I just don't see it happening, though. Ireland simply have the better players.

Just don't expect a classic. 'Gut-check time' won't allow it.

Irish Independent

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