Kidney's call strikes a flat note
RADICAL departure was never on the agenda but yesterday's Six Nations and Wolfhounds squad announcements still felt flat.
Pancake Tuesday flat -- Wile E Coyote under a steamroller, in the Low Countries, flat. The 24 players named in the Six Nations squad were all part of the World Cup party that threatened, but failed, to bring Ireland to their first semi-final.
And, while no-one disputes that it was a particularly good tournament for Ireland up to that point, overlooking the quarter-final defeat to Wales puts you squarely in "other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" territory.
The Welsh performance that day was founded on youthful verve; Ireland's selection yesterday was based on the tried and trusted.
Change for change's sake is never advisable -- as England may soon discover -- but there were certain players, such as Luke Fitzgerald, Peter O'Mahony, Chris Henry and Paul Marshall, whose form this season could have received greater reward yesterday, while Paddy Wallace is retained post-World Cup despite starting just once for Ulster since early November.
Of course, there is still the capacity for change, with another squad due to be named on Monday, January 30, from which the 22 to face Wales will be drawn.
This could mean, for example, that Fitzgerald's inclusion in the Wolfhounds party, where youth is indulged by necessity, is merely a way to get him game time after recent injury absence.
Nonetheless, Fitzgerald's record, form and proven quality have earned the right to inclusion as a senior player.
Also, the situation regarding Leo Cullen could yet change. The 34-year-old makes the Six Nations 24 but is carrying an Achilles injury which Leinster would prefer to be sorted, via surgery, before their Heineken Cup knockout duties post-Six Nations, while Ireland, who will monitor Cullen in training next week, clearly want him on hand as experienced second-row cover.
That reflects the prerogatives of a year of gruelling fixtures (including a three-Test summer series against the All Blacks) when victories are of paramount importance with regards to seeding for the next World Cup.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney has, over many years of achievement, earned the right to have his judgment trusted, but the Grand Slam is three years old and he will be under the microscope like never before should results go against him in the Six Nations.
Bar Brian O'Driscoll, the Ireland team against Wales should be based largely around the World Cup front-liners with little argument, but there was still scope to kick off the next four-year cycle with greater recognition of form and a nod to the future. Just a couple of names would have done it.
Ireland's Six Nations Squad (24)
Rory Best, Sean Cronin
No issue or surprises here with Jerry Flannery unavailable. Best was outstanding at the World Cup and has been in fine form for Ulster, while Cronin's move to Leinster has paid off.
Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Tom Court
Again, no question of the top three props available to Kidney, although Ireland would be better served by Court getting more game time at tight-head. The issue is what is behind the holy trinity and how much game time they are getting.
Paul O'Connell (capt), Donnacha Ryan, Donncha O'Callaghan, Leo Cullen
O'Callaghan may have fallen behind Ryan at Munster but was never going to miss out on squad selection. Ryan is flying this season and favourite for the berth next to captain O'Connell, while also providing valuable cover in the back-row.
There was a case for having the equally versatile Dan Tuohy as the fourth second-row, given that Cullen is now 34 and carrying an Achilles problem that may require surgery.
Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings
The Ferris-O'Brien-Heaslip combination is set in stone, with O'Brien the designated open-side.
Jennings' retention could be explained by the need for specialist cover at No 7, but Chris Henry or Peter O'Mahony could have provided this also, as well as superior form.
Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan
The top two No 9s, although the pecking order for the Wales game is unclear. Both going well for their provinces in what has become a strong position for Ireland.
Ronan O'Gara, Jonathan Sexton
Like the men inside them, no contest for the top two 10s. Sexton is favourite to start against Wales but O'Gara is performing as well as ever and will not give up the fight easily.
Gordon D'Arcy, Fergus McFadden, Paddy Wallace
D'Arcy and McFadden were certainties to retain their World Cup spots but Wallace is a conservative pick.
Darren Cave was a strong candidate here until his injury last weekend and Ian Madigan is the form out-half behind the big two. Fitzgerald will surely force his way back in ahead of Wallace after the Wolfhounds game.
Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble
Trimble, as he was in the run-in to the World Cup, is in sensational form, hoping it will be rewarded with the left-wing jersey he could not wrest off Earls in New Zealand. Earls' finishing was lethal at that tournament but he could yet be considered for the No 13 jersey next to D'Arcy or McFadden.
Non-contestable. After missing out with injury last season, Kearney has returned better than ever, kicking on from an impressive World Cup campaign as the form full-back in Europe.
IRISH Wolfhounds squad (22)
Paul Marshall is the shock exclusion here, his scintillating form for Ulster not enough to gain him selection ahead of the more experienced and physical Tomas O'Leary, who has been struggling to regain his 2009 supremacy after falling behind Murray at Munster and missing out on the World Cup.
Rhys Ruddock gets in ahead of Peter O'Mahony, possibly on the basis of extra bulk and the fact that he has experience of the step-up from the 2010 summer tour, while John Muldoon is deservedly rewarded for his dogged and effective determination throughout Connacht's extended run of defeats.
Madigan's breakthrough displays should earn him the out-half jersey for the clash with England 'A', but there is no specialist open-side flanker in the 22, Willie Faloon paying for Pedrie Wannenburg's presence in the Ulster back-row, with Henry likely to fill in at No 7 against the Saxons.
Fionn Carr has had some good moments since joining Leinster, but not enough front-line exposure to get in ahead of team-mate Dave Kearney, while there is also a shortage of natural first-centres, which could see Ian Keatley pressed into service outside Madigan, with Gavin Duffy, Nevin Spence and Fitzgerald also capable of slotting in.
Possible Wolfhounds selection (v England Saxons) -- D Hurley; D Kearney, E O'Malley, I Keatley, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, I Boss; B Wilkinson, D Varley, R Loughney; D Tuohy, D Toner; K McLaughlin, C Henry, J Muldoon. Subs: M Sherry, S Archer, M McCarthy, R Ruddock, T O'Leary, G Duffy, N Spence.
Half-a-dozen talented youngsters have been named to help fill out numbers for Six Nations squad training sessions, including second-row Ian Nagle, prop Paddy McAllister, and three wingers in Andrew Conway, Tiernan O'Halloran and Simon Zebo. They will benefit from exposure to the senior coaching set-up.
However, while O'Mahony's inclusion is a considerable step forward for him, the back-row's performances deserved more.