independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Tony Ward: Earls has ability to take centre stage with O'Driscoll

Keith Earls

We didn't become the worst team in the world when we lost to England, just as beating Wales didn't make us the best thing since sliced bread.

But inconsistency continues to be an issue under Declan Kidney, and despite the Grand Slam of 2009, it will be his legacy when his time is up.

And the next few weeks could decide whether that time will be sooner rather than later.

Manage two wins from three and he may survive into the summer tour and beyond, but anything less and you fear the worst. All three games – Scotland away, France at home and Italy away – are fraught with danger.

And although there is no disgrace in losing to an England squad growing in stature, the nature of that defeat will have damaged confidence.

Ignore the soundings you will hear from Carton House in the coming days as to how well training is going – what matters is Ireland's physical and psychological well-being at Murrayfield on Sunday.

It is a very winnable game against a nation that has still to get its professional house in order.

But with Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Simon Zebo, Mike McCarthy and Gordon D'Arcy all unavailable, Ireland have lost half of their first XV – the first five of whom are nailed-on Lions.

So how does Kidney go about picking his side, to be announced tomorrow?

Poor

At full-back will be Rob Kearney, despite having an uncharacteristically poor outing against the English.

He wasn't by any means alone in that, with only Rory Best, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Conor Murray showing anything close to the levels they hit in Cardiff a week before.

I have no doubt that Kearney's display against England was a blip and that normal service will be resumed on Sunday against Stuart Hogg – emerging as a serious rival for the Lions No 15 shirt.

Craig Gilroy will continue on the right wing, although I hope the issue of aimless kicking – neither chip nor Garryowen but putting boot to ball for the sake of it – will have been addressed forcibly.

In the centre, the loss of D'Arcy is far more serious than many appreciate. Yes, we can bandy around names such as Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Fergus McFadden, Paddy Wallace, Dave McSharry and James Downey but the problem (much like that in the back-row) is about balance alongside form and temperament.

So I go against popular opinion – I would pick Keith Earls to partner Brian O'Driscoll, but with the freedom to chop and change between outside and inside-centre as field position demands.

But if Kidney wants to take a punt, then Marshall at No 12 with O'Driscoll No 13 would be the alternative strategy. That would free up Earls to play on the left wing in place of Zebo.

Yet I cannot see any natural wing traits in Earls. In this position, there is one obvious candidate who stands out miles ahead of the rest, irrespective of how much time he has spent out: the right man to line out opposite Tim Visser is Luke Fitzgerald – period.

At half-back, Murray and Ronan O'Gara should resume their Munster partnership.

I repeat, O'Gara is not the player he was (how could he be, going on 36?) but he is the right man to fill a gaping hole at this point in time.

To throw in Paddy Jackson would almost be a repeat of Twickenham and the Heineken Cup final against Leinster last May. Jackson is a developing talent but he is operating more as a link than game-changer and string-puller for Ulster.

He appeared really comfortable alongside Marshall against Fiji in Limerick back in November, but the rejuvenated Scots in Murrayfield is a different proposition entirely.

Yesterday's decision to call up Ian Madigan as cover at out-half/utility back is to be welcomed, given his consistency for Leinster this season, even allowing for the 'second choice to Sexton' argument.

O'Gara missed three kicks at Parc y Scarlets on Saturday, so the world is on his case. Head down in training, head up on Sunday with a smile on that overly sullen face, and let the experience that has served him so well for so long do the talking.

Cian Healy's moment of madness has got some of what it deserves but it presents Limerick's Dave Kilcoyne with the opportunity to stake a loose-head claim.

Donncha O'Callaghan (one of Munster's most consistent performers since Rob Penney's arrival and O'Connell's injury) will slot in alongside Donnacha Ryan, leaving the same back-row of O'Mahony, O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

Heaslip did not play well against England and needs the type of performance that has long marked him as leadership material to restore his damaged status.

The Leinster No 8's trademark is his selflessness and that quality more than any other will be needed in abundance against the Scots. The fancy bits by which so many judge so unfairly will then look after themselves.

Sometimes when you deliver, as did Ireland in Cardiff, a 'comfortable' mindset develops (unwittingly) within the collective psyche. Only the players know if that was the case ahead of facing the English. What should hurt everybody involved is that, for a game against the old enemy in Dublin, England clearly wanted it more.

On the bench, Tom Court should come in as cover for Kilcoyne, with Iain Henderson back in place of O'Callaghan.

Eoin Reddan and Jackson will be the half-back cover, with the versatile McFadden covering the rest of the backline.

That would make for a line-up with five changes to the XV, which is stretching scarce resources to the limit, but that is where we find ourselves ahead of this season-defining game.

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