Brave call in culling of Cullen
THERE was a text doing the rounds yesterday after Ireland announced their team to face England in Twickenham.
"This was written in the stars," it read. "Kidney's a Libra and they're not compatible with Leos..."
All in jest, of course. However, it says something about the performances of Leinster captain Leo Cullen in Ireland's opening two Six Nations games that the main talking point ahead of Saturday's clash was not his club colleague Jonathan Sexton getting in ahead of Ronan O'Gara, or Geordan Murphy's return from injury-enforced international wilderness, but rather the reinstatement of 58-times capped Donncha O'Callaghan to the second-row.
This was not equivalent to Stephen Ferris' return from injury when he reclaimed his place at blindside from Kevin McLaughlin, who played in the opening match against Italy. McLaughlin is an international rookie, who did well on his debut, and Ferris' recall was never in doubt once he was fit enough to play.
Nor is there an issue with O'Callaghan's qualifications for the place alongside Paul O'Connell. The Corkman has been in fine form this season and his engine capacity, scrummaging, line-out ability and partnership with O'Connell are long established. It also means Kidney can go into this crucial clash at Twickenham with the back five that back-boned his Grand Slam and November achievements last year.
The issue lies with the fact that O'Callaghan's knee injury has kept him out of action since Munster's win over Northampton on January 22.
And also because not only did Cullen do nothing wrong against Italy and France, he did a hell of a lot of things right. His scrummaging and, particularly, line-out performances have been exemplary and though O'Callaghan's physical attributes are well suited to Saturday's challenge, Cullen is hardly a shrinking violet in this regard.
"I have to go with what I see in training and Donncha has done most of the training sessions," explained Kidney. "We're into a balance here of trying to talk up Donncha, which I find difficult to do because by contrast it's not about trying to talk down Leo -- there's an opportunity cost whichever way we go.
"In Leo not being there, I know that will cost us in some things but I think for Donncha, it's the right mix for this game.
"It's a call on slim margins and there will be a debate and I understand that. But I think people will respect the fact that we see what goes on in training. It's not like Leo was playing badly -- he was playing very well, we've had an exceptionally good defensive line-out -- but that's my role, to make these calls."
If leaving out Cullen was a big decision, so too was the decision to start Murphy at full-back for his 66th cap after just one full game back from injury.
However, Murphy's display for Leicester in last weekend's win over Gloucester was heartening and obviously place-clinching. His class was evident throughout and crossing for a try did his candidature no harm. Following the injury to Rob Kearney, the option was to move Keith Earls to full-back and bring Andrew Trimble onto the left wing.
However, Earls is more protected on the left and Murphy is well equipped to deal with the expected English aerial bombardment, while a back three of Murphy, Earls and Tommy Bowe carries plenty of attacking potential.
"The fact that Geordan played the 80 the other day put him in the frame," said Kidney. "Denis Hurley played well (for Munster) and I thought Girvan Dempsey had a very good game for Leinster the other night and Gavin Duffy has gone well for the (Ireland) As.
"So it wasn't as straightforward as all that but Geordan's been in and around the squad all of last year too and was unlucky to lose out then. (Twickenham) is not a ground that he'll be unfamiliar with and he'll be against players that he knows, so that was part of the mix in giving him the nod."
The two other changes to the starting XV were more expected. Kidney was always likely to have a look at Sexton in the high-pressure environment of Twickenham and his 22-point man-of-the-match display in Leinster's win over Scarlets last Saturday would have copper-fastened that call.
It is tough on O'Gara, who played a lot better than he was given credit for behind a beaten pack in Paris, but Kidney once again stressed how fortunate Ireland are to have two out-halves of this quality, and O'Gara remains a central figure.
After Cullen, the other main surprise was Tony Buckley's selection over Tom Court on the bench. Court has been in superb form and was available after overcoming a rib injury, but has gone from being touted as a possible starter against England to being out of the 22.
It's another brave call by Kidney as Buckley has had his difficulties in the scrum this season (enduring a particularly rough night against Scotland's Jon Welsh in the recent 'A' international).
However, the Shannon man is a powerful performer in the loose and had a good game for Munster against Edinburgh last Friday when his scrummaging and loose play held up very well.
Rory Best was guaranteed to start at hooker once Jerry Flannery's suspension was confirmed and his return is testament to the Ulster captain's hard work and determination after a neck injury had appeared to end his season before it had started.
Sean Cronin's selection as Best's understudy was also a matter of course and is justifiable reward for his decision to swap Munster for Connacht and back himself to climb the ladder.
Shane Jennings was the logical replacement for the injured Sean O'Brien given his strong performance for Leinster last weekend and his ability to cover openside. Cullen drops down to the bench -- Donnacha Ryan is out with a dislocated shoulder.
Although there are many talking points, this team has a good look to it; it is capable of doing a number on an unchanged England side and getting things back on track.
"Making decisions is an area where Librans excel as they have the ability to look at all sides of the issue" -- the textbook definition of those who fall under the sign of the scales and one which is perfectly applicable to Ireland's coach.
Defeat on Saturday would inevitably raise certain issues about yesterday's selection but, for now, Kidney has earned the right to have his judgement backed.