Kidney steers steady course for last hurrah
Kearney and Wallace push for recalls as coach looks to tried and trusted for Croker farewell
GIVEN their improvement under Andy Robinson and obvious squad unity, it would be harsh to describe Scotland's rugby team as sacrificial lambs ahead of Saturday's Six Nations meeting with Ireland.
However, as Declan Kidney's men line up another Triple Crown and seek to mark the end of their hugely successful Croke Park stint in fitting style, the Scots go in more as party-facilitators than poopers.
It was the Scotland game last year which allowed Kidney to rotate his team, confident in the experience and ability of the men he brought in and the relative gulf in class between his side and the Scots, even in their Edinburgh home. Robinson is not getting the results his solid work with Scotland deserves, largely down to a lack of confidence among his players who, in stark contrast to the winning mentality embedded in the Irish squad over the past few months, lose their nerve when victory beckons.
They could be arriving in Dublin with three victories under their belts but managed to throw away winning positions against Wales, Italy and England. They are extremely unlikely to be in that situation on Saturday as Ireland are a level above the Scots, Welsh, English and Italians, looking to establish themselves as regular diners at the top-four table of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France.
It means Kidney could, technically, use this fixture to have a look at some options but, with the aforementioned Triple Crown and leave-taking backdrops, is expected to keep changes to a minimum.
Gordon D'Arcy is the major injury worry after the "deep bruising" he received above his left knee against Wales. It is hoped the centre will return to training on Thursday but, with a seven-day turnaround allowing little scope for full recovery, D'Arcy has to be considered a doubt.
Already without the proven international talents of Luke Fitzgerald, there was a time not so long ago when the possible loss of a player of D'Arcy's ability would be a serious disruption to the backline. However, true to Kidney's policy of squad development, there are a clutch of players who could feature in a rejigged backline without weakening overall effectiveness.
The most straightforward option would be to slot Paddy Wallace straight back in at No 12, where he operated effectively in 2009 during the Grand Slam and November campaigns.
Alternatively, Keith Earls could be brought into midfield to share the inside-outside roles with captain Brian O'Driscoll. That would leave a vacancy on the left wing where most pundits believe Rob Kearney will slot back in, allowing Geordan Murphy to hold onto the No 15 jersey.
Murphy has done well since brought in for the injured Kearney -- especially since he was coming off a lengthy period on the sidelines. However, Kidney could have taken that option last Saturday when D'Arcy was injured and Earls moved inside, but he instead opted to switch Murphy to the left wing and put Kearney in his favoured position. Why should we assume he will have altered his thinking two days later?
Kearney is still Ireland's best option at full-back (in the short, mid and long-terms) and some of the criticism he has received this season has been ill-judged.
There have been a couple of sub-par games but only when measured against the standards he set in 2009 when Kearney was the most effective No 15 in the world.
Murphy looks extremely sharp and the Leicester man has plenty of experience on the wing while the other option would be Andrew Trimble returning to the No 11 jersey he filled against Italy in the opening round of the Six Nations, although the Ulster man's poor display in the recent Magners League defeat at the Scarlets will not help his cause.
Jonathan Sexton's place-kicking difficulties will lead to speculation of a recall for Ronan O'Gara but Sexton's passing, running and tackling games were top quality and Saturday provides an opportunity to restore confidence off the tee.
Other than that, there is the perennial question of when is the right time to start someone in place of the remarkable John Hayes who chalked up his 101st cap in customary no-nonsense style. The step and hit he produced when Wales thought they had the Irish scrum on the rack testified to the enduring quality of the man and, although Tony Buckley has never looked more ready to make an impact as an international tight-head, denying Hayes the chance to start the last match at Croke Park looks unlikely.
Scotland will be organised, committed and possess a back-row worthy of going up against the much-vaunted Irish trio of Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip. Kidney and his management team do not make the mistake of taking opponents lightly and will want to maintain the restorative progress made post-Paris.
That points towards a settled selection but which could accommodate returns for Kearney -- and Paddy Wallace if D'Arcy is unavailable.
POSSIBLE IRELAND XV -- R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy/P Wallace, K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, R Best, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip.