Twickenham reshuffle can reinvigorate season
T wo games into Ireland's defence of the Six Nations title and things haven't exactly gone to plan. Loss of form, injuries, an ominously impressive French team and a suspension have all combined to generate serious pressure on Declan Kidney to produce a side capable of performing successfully at Twickenham next week.
Having suffered a comprehensive stuffing in Paris, not just on the scoreboard but physically too, a major question has now arisen as to just where this group are in their development process ahead of next year's World Cup in New Zealand.
A good team doesn't become a bad one overnight and, in the case of this particular team, the loss in Paris, regardless of its manner, doesn't imply that we're back to the bad old days. The reaction to the loss serves merely to illustrate the significantly raised levels of expectation amongst supporters brought about by recent successes in both provincial and international competition.
We mustn't lose sight of the fact either that when this French team apply themselves to the exploitation of their own potential, they will be a real force to be reckoned with in the world game and particularly so when New Zealand 2011 comes around.
With defeat being such a rare occurrence for us in recent times, it's important that any analysis of last Saturday's events be carried out in the appropriate perspective. This, for example, was our first defeat since losing to the All Blacks in November 2008.
Having said that, a number of questions must be addressed, centring principally around our capacity to compete physically in all facets of the game -- scrum, tackle, ruck, maul.
While we were highly competitive in the first quarter last Saturday -- and it could have been a slightly different game had the bounce of the ball gone Gordon D'Arcy's way -- the fact remains that this was the highlight of the game for Ireland, even allowing for David Wallace's late try.
The main selection questions centre around jerseys 3, 7, 9, 10, and 15, plus the overall balance and make-up of the bench. It seems that Irish rugby has been searching, usually unnecessarily, for a challenger to John Hayes ever since he arrived on the scene over a decade ago, and while I remain to be convinced that Tom Court measures up, I do believe he did enough last week when introduced from the bench to warrant a starting position next time out.
Elsewhere in the pack, Leo Cullen fully deserves to retain his place alongside Paul O'Connell in the second-row. While questions concerning their contribution at scrum time must be addressed, the pair's guaranteed supply of our own lineout ball, and the high proportion pilfered from French throws, should have been enough to win any game. Regrettably, the inability of others to adequately utilise that supply provides an area of concern which must be urgently addressed.
Behind the scrum, Tomás O'Leary, once again, was by no means firing on all cylinders. Destined to be scrum-half for Ireland in the coming years, he has struggled this season to find a consistency of performance.
Indeed, his form has been erratic, to say the least. Few at present, and least of all Kidney, see Eoin Reddan as a real alternative in the long term, but it might be a clever move to include the Leinster player for Twickenham, alongside his provincial half-back partner Jonathan Sexton.
Ronan O'Gara did nothing in Paris to justify his preferment, and had an evening to forget, epitomised by the ease with which he was brushed off in the second half by his opposite number Francois Trinh-Duc. Sexton brings a broader range of skills to the team, not least defensively where, frankly, O'Gara's frailties are an unaffordable luxury, particularly when viewed in the light of the available alternative.
Outside of that, Rob Kearney's injury opens a significant debate in that he had, on his better days, become almost a second outhalf, in terms of his facility for playmaking.
With Geordan Murphy having been out with a long-term injury, the most likely option appeared to be Keith Earls, and he certainly appears Declan Kidney's most likely choice, although if I were picking the team, Murphy would take the number 15 jersey.
Constantly moving Earls around the backlines of Munster and Ireland will do his precocious talent no good whatsoever, while his relative lack of physical presence was also brought on to the agenda in the Stade de France.
At the risk of being accused of over-simplification, what any team needs after a loss such as last week's is reinvigoration, and Kidney certainly has form in this regard. With the likes of Court, Reddan, Sexton and possibly even a fit-again Geordan Murphy all vying for inclusion, along with Andrew Trimble and Shane Horgan (not to mention Rory Best's certain return in the wake of Jerry Flannery's suspension), it's clear we can expect a lot of change when the team is announced.
The west London cabbage-patch has always held a special charm for Irish visitors, but it's a difficult place to visit at the best of times, even if our recent record there is respectable and is capable of being maintained on Saturday.
As for our progress on the journey to New Zealand 2011, it must be said that the jury has been presented with a comprehensive list of issues: the presumption that astute man-management in the intervening period would deliver a highly-competitive, if venerable, squad to the competition is no longer a safe one.
Another setback similar to last week's would throw the best-laid plans into complete disarray.