Kidney trusts Irish to deliver
AN act of faith from Declan Kidney.
By sticking with 14 of the team which underperformed in their Six Nations opener against Italy, the Ireland coach has placed trust in his players eliminating the errors that crippled them last weekend in Rome when they run out to face Grand Slam champions France in Lansdowne Road on Sunday.
He also needs them to produce a performance that Ireland can build on as the clock ticks down to the World Cup in seven months' time. It has been a long time coming.
Not since the victory over Wales last March have we had an Ireland performance to truly stir the soul and, while injuries have been (and continue to be) a debilitating factor, there is an imperative to unearth a cohesive, compelling display this weekend -- not least because anything less will expose Ireland to the type of hammering they endured last year against France.
The sole change sees Jamie Heaslip restored to the No 8 position with Sean O'Brien moving over to blindside flanker and Denis Leamy dropping to the bench.
While it will only be Heaslip's second game since Christmas (his first since the Magners League clash with the Ospreys on January 7), once he had recovered sufficiently from the bruised ankle he sustained in December, the Kildare man's reinstatement was never really in doubt.
It gives the back-row a more balanced look, with Heaslip providing an option at the back of the line-out, even though France are especially strong here with their athletic trio of Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire and Thierry Dusautoir.
There were also calls for another fit-again player -- Andrew Trimble -- to be brought back on to the wing for his experience and power, particularly with Maxime Medard lining up there for the French.
However, Ireland's wingers Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls performed well defensively in Italy, and combined with full-back Luke Fitzgerald to provide a running threat from the back.
The most fortunate survivor from the Stadio Flaminio is undoubtedly Tomas O'Leary. The scrum-half is, in cricket terms, 'out of nick' and while his willingness to put his body on the line around the fringes is undiminished, O'Leary is struggling in possession.
Eoin Reddan was available to re-establish his successful Leinster partnership with out-half Jonathan Sexton, but remains in reserve, while the fastest gun of them all, Peter Stringer, is completely out of the picture. Kidney needs O'Leary to return to the form that saw him selected for the Lions tour in 2009, before injury kept him off the plane to South Africa.
That need is accentuated by the attacking prerogative this weekend. Trying to merely contain the French is a policy that will backfire if Marc Lievremont's side hit their straps -- this is certainly not a side you invite onto you.
Indeed, the 25 tackles France missed in their 34-21 win over Scotland last weekend suggests there is space to exploit and Ireland's outside backs need swift release from O'Leary if they are to go after it.
The up-and-at-em approach worked two years ago when Ireland defeated the French at Croke Park on their march to Grand Slam glory and Kidney is adamant that Sunday is not a time to be meek.
"We have to have the courage to go out and play," stressed the Ireland head coach.
"With the way the laws of the game are now, if you stand off them and try and do damage limitation you are going to get opened up. So, we need the courage to go and play. These fellahs are hugely self-critical and sometimes they just need to relax and trust themselves and just go out and play.
"That's what I'm trusting they will do on Sunday."
As for France, Kidney sees very few weaknesses in their make-up.
"French rugby ... I don't want to sound like a broken record here ... but they do have 14 professional teams compared to our four.
"France are a hugely powerful side. They have a strong set-piece, their scrum is strong and their line-out is strong with lots of options.
"They are good at phase play because they are all ball-handlers, their 10 and their 12 and 13 are all good footballers who are also very big men, and they have picked a back three to counter-attack. They are a well-rounded side, a very good side."
The need for the Ireland players, and their constituent combinations, to gel with more game time together was the primary reason for going with the same players and Kidney referred to that frequently yesterday.
He also said it opens up the possibility of Ireland introducing more variety to their attacking game.
"That will happen once we hang on to the ball. That evolves after playing for one or two games together and that's why I've left the team as it was, let them get used to one or two nuances, the way guys carry ball, intuitive stuff that you get from playing together over a period of time," Kidney added.
"I know the variations are there, we have them in our play and I believe they will come out as confidence grows."
Lack of confidence remains an issue, as it was in November, now Ireland require a performance packed with verve and clinical execution -- anything less and France could run amok, which would require a complete rethink with time running out. Trust, loyalty, faith, those were the buzzwords in Kidney's selection yesterday. Now they need to deliver.