Thursday 24 August 2017

Horgan in the wings for battle royal

Powerful presence of Meath ace must bring him to fore in Kidney's plans for Twickenham

Shane Horgan touches down at full stretch to score the crucial try that sealed a Triple Crown success in 2006 in Twickenham - Horgan has been left in the shadows during the Kidney era to date
Shane Horgan touches down at full stretch to score the crucial try that sealed a Triple Crown success in 2006 in Twickenham - Horgan has been left in the shadows during the Kidney era to date

As Ireland struggled in the gladiatorial cauldron that was the Stade de France last weekend, some of the stunned visiting audience wondered aloud whether anyone could have provided more of a physical presence than the poor rag dolls so dismissively tossed to the turf by the brutish French.

Others shared this craving and more speculated whether there was a player anywhere capable of breaking a tackle and at least tip-toeing beyond the gain-line. Still more pondered whether there may have been a more proficient weapon to deploy at the restarts, where it seemed, Ireland struggled to maintain possession or challenge consistently on opposition ball.

It was a pity, though, that they were left to lament into their over-priced, over-frothed beers, that such a player would sadly remain a figment of their collective imaginations.

Yet such a player does exist. And he is more likely than not to be named in the starting line-up that will be revealed to the country at lunchtime next Tuesday afternoon.

That the player comes armed with an impressive strike-rate of better than one in three for province and country and is the fourth-highest scorer in Heineken Cup history is an added bonus.

So too his ability to rise -- often literally -- to the occasion against the 'old enemy'. Think Triple Crown 2006 and that extended arm in the corner. Think Croke Park '07 and the nod to the GAA's proud tradition in Meath.

If Declan Kidney is thinking what you're thinking, then Shane Horgan will earn his 66th Irish cap tomorrow week -- four years after his unforgettable try secured for his country what was then a second Triple Crown in three years.

On form, Horgan's selection appears cut and dried. But there are deeper issues at play, not all of them quite so obvious to the naked eye but persistent enough to lead some to question whether the 31-year-old's international career was in its death throes.

Former team-mate Denis Hickie suggested as much recently, sufficiently moved to declare at a recent Guinness Area 22 Today FM fans forum that the man popularly known as 'Shaggy' would never play for Ireland again as long as Kidney was coach.

Whether this relates back to Kidney's unhappy, season-long stint at the Leinster helm, unpopular with many of its then constituents, remains unclear and, given the extant careers of so many from that 2004-05 season, highly unlikely.

Also, unlike other veterans such as Malcolm O'Kelly, Alan Quinlan and Girvan Dempsey, jettisoned before this campaign -- or well before it -- Horgan remains firmly within Kidney's plans.

Horgan featured from the bench in Kidney's first game in charge, against Canada at Thomond Park, but was then overlooked for the entire Grand Slam campaign before returning to start against Fiji in the RDS last November.

When it came to the selection for the opening defence of the Grand Slam, Horgan lost out to another revitalised player coming in from the cold, Andrew Trimble.

"Andrew was probably unlucky in November not to get a game," said Kidney prior to this month's Italy game, "but Shane Horgan deserved his outing on that occasion. This time around Horgan loses out and Andrew gets his chance."

Horgan's absence from Ireland's crowning glory was bittersweet, but there was little sentiment involved in his omission; he was palpably struggling for form, even at provincial level and only Rob Kearney's spring injury ensured the hulking 6'4", 16-and-a-half stone player could make his considerable presence felt.

As if sensing this was the chance to cast aside any introverted reflections on what might have been in a green jersey, Horgan was one of the pivotal instruments in guiding his beloved Leinster to a maiden Heineken Cup success.

That form has carried through to this season and even his oft-maligned handling, rarely aided by ill-founded attempts to transform him into an inside-centre, has improved, noticeably that deft off-load to provide Brian O'Driscoll with the bonus-point score against Brive in January.

There are still question marks about his defence, not so much in collisions, but when a kicking game ensues. Twickenham promises to be an unruly festival of ping-pong but Horgan's physical attributes and sparkling form surely outweigh any negatives.

Trimble's return to fitness after the hamstring strain, which forced him from the selection process for Paris, clouds the picture. It will be fascinating to compare and contrast the jostling duo in their respective Magners League clashes this weekend.

During Ireland's calamitous World Cup in France three years ago, Horgan had been dogged by knee trouble all year, twice making miraculous recoveries. But he confessed that he was "probably not going to get to another World Cup, so I wasn't going to go out just to make up the numbers. I wouldn't come back just for the sake of it. I'd be taking advantage of my team-mates if that was the case."

Although his contract expires this summer -- he rejected advances from two English clubs to sign a two-year deal in March 2008 just before the house of Eddie O'Sullivan crumbled -- Horgan's desire still remains, even if a 2011 World Cup bow seems improbable.

That long-term view would be the only bar to his selection during the current, injury-wracked campaign. Certainly, he perceives of no other obstructions, as he told the Drogheda Independent a while ago.

"As head coach, it's important you have a good relationship, and in fairness he (Kidney) has always been a good communicator and there's never been an issue with that," he said.

"Sometimes you have to take your own medicine and work hard and train hard to get back in the team. The guys in there at the moment are doing very well and that's been one of the reasons for our success in the last 18 months -- there's been good competition for places.

"You have to accept that and get stuck in, and if you get an opportunity you have to take it."

A return to the venue of past triumphs and against opposition so often trumped would provide him with the perfect opportunity.

Irish Independent

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