Kidney looking to mix muscle with magic
Powerful pack can lay platform for an Irish backline born to run
ONE new cap, three players making their first Six Nations starts and a backline set on attack mode -- Ireland's team to take on Italy in Rome on Saturday represents something of a new departure.
Of course, injuries have been a significant factor in this selection, but it has allowed Ireland coach Declan Kidney to set a fresh template, kicking on from the Grand Slam format of two years ago and pointing the way forward after a relatively disappointing 2010.
Not least in the front-row where Kidney has, belatedly, turned to the scrummaging power of Mike Ross.
It took a steady stream of impressive performances from the Leinster tight-head (and perhaps injury to John Hayes and Tony Buckley) to finally convince Kidney that Ross deserved his shot but, now he has made the call, the Ireland coach can expect a solid platform to launch his back-row and his back-line moves.
The onus is now on Ross to produce a convincing performance that will nail down this key position, allowing Ireland to press ahead into the Six Nations and onto the World Cup with their scrummaging weaknesses (which hampered their November efforts) no longer an issue.
As expected, from numbers 1-9, Kidney has gone for bulk to counter the Italians where they are strongest -- in the scrum and with their pick-and-go game around the fringes. Indeed, with Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip out of the equation, the only way Kidney could have gone any bulkier was to pick Tom Court at loose-head.
However, while Court may have the edge over Cian Healy in terms of raw scrummaging power, his Leinster counterpart is developing all the time and is enjoying a productive season.
The decision to go with Donncha O'Callaghan as Paul O'Connell's second-row partner is harsh on Leo Cullen, who has reason to ask, 'what more do I have to do?', but it is not unexpected.
Kidney referred to O'Callaghan as "a stalwart" of the Irish team yesterday and, at his best, the Munster man is perfectly suited for this type of grappling encounter. As is Denis Leamy, who packs down at blind-side flanker next to David Wallace and No 8 Sean O'Brien.
It is a physical, hard-running unit but, while Kidney was always unlikely to throw in Kevin McLaughlin or Rhys Ruddock first up, there is an onus on the back-row, none of whom stand over 6ft 2ins, to provide a third line-out option.
Rory Best is another selection based on physicality over the dynamism of Sean Cronin but, while the Connacht hooker has the consolation of a place on the bench, scrum-half Peter Stringer finds himself in no-man's land as Tomas O'Leary resumes at No 9 after missing the November series, with Eoin Reddan providing back-up.
O'Leary is defined by his capacity for mowing down runners at close quarters, which makes him the most obvious horses-for-courses selection for Rome, but outside the Munster scrum-half the selections are all about attack.
Kidney has attracted criticism for a perceived conservatism over the years, but his outside backs for Saturday were born to run, with Jonathan Sexton tasked with unleashing them from out-half.
Fitzgerald has three full games under his belt since returning from injury but has yet to rediscover his best form and, on that basis, represents something of a gamble at No 15, having played most of his rugby on the wing.
However, Fitzgerald is a world-class talent with the potential to light up this tournament from full-back and he forms an exciting back three alongside Keith Earls and debutant Fergus McFadden.
"With the way the laws are now, you want a back three who are willing to take on the opposition," said Kidney. "They have the football and I'd back them to have the courage to have a go."
Stirring stuff and in keeping with the philosophy that has worked so well for Leinster. It is no surprise that this is a Leinster-dominated back-line, with O'Leary and left-wing Keith Earls the only exceptions. However, captain Brian O'Driscoll was adamant that his men go into battle with no preconceived provincial notions.
"It's not about units coming together from provinces and playing their brand," said O'Driscoll. "We're playing an Irish style. We sat down a long time ago and spoke about what way we wanted to play this game internationally, and we're all just buying into that."
O'Driscoll added that he is confident Fitzgerald will be a success in his full-back role.
"When he's really booming with confidence he's a very, very dangerous player. Both as an attacking player and a strategic player as well, he can mix his game well at full-back."
It all whets the appetite for Saturday and, while the injury-plagued build-up has been challenging and there are omitted players with justifiable grievances , the bottom line is Ireland go into their Six Nations opener with a back-line dripping with try-scoring potential and a pack that can provide them with the platform to do so.
Muscle up front, magic out wide -- not a bad plan to be getting on with.