Tony Ward: Minor rather than major surgery the key for Kidney
Coming hard on the heels of Declan Kidney's first Six Nations defeat as Ireland coach and amid an ever-growing injury list, there was much interest over the weekend in the performances of a number of players in the frame for selection at Twickenham on Saturday.
Kidney has been around the block often enough not to be taken in by one impressive effort. Nonetheless, when evidence is limited and time is running out, sometimes needs must. Much though we might wish for change on a grand scale, the reality of scarce resources dictates otherwise.
So put yourself in Kidney's shoes and, factoring in that disappointing Paris performance, ask where can changes be made that can bring about an improvement to the gameplan for Twickenham?
The horses for courses principle might not appeal to all, but sometimes that pragmatic approach still applies. Let us start in the last line. Rob Kearney's form may have dipped of late but were he available he would be the first name on my team-sheet for London.
The best full-backs bring a feeling of assurance -- that Peter Schmeichel-type conviction in the last line of defence has a ripple effect on the 14 in front. That, plus Kearney's natural instinct to counter-attack, will be missed against the English.
So where to for Kidney? On the basis of Geordan Murphy not being available and despite having to switch positions (from wing to full-back), Keith Earls seems the most logical selection given the circumstances. But as Murphy's rehabilitation appears to be ahead of schedule -- his return to fitness reflected itself in full in training yesterday -- I would take a punt and run with the vastly experienced Leicester man.
Earls has the versatility to fill that role if required mid-match but this season, unlike last, he has had very little game-time in the position with Munster.
Murphy's return would leave Tommy Bowe on the right with Earls and Andrew Trimble fighting it out for the left-wing spot (in the ongoing absence of Luke Fitzgerald). It is a tight call, although despite Trimble's clear advantage in terms of physicality, Earls' potential for line-breaking might just shade it for me.
At half-back there is a case for change on the basis of immediate and longer-term needs overlapping. Ronan O'Gara's form, despite some opinion to the contrary, has not been poor of late. He was not the prime reason for defeat in Paris, not even remotely close. Both he and Tomas O'Leary were exposed to enormous pressure and full credit to the French for that.
It is the aim of every team since time began to get at the opposition halves and in Paris, Les Bleus succeeded, with both O'Gara and O'Leary exposed at various times.
I believe the time is right to shift the half-back spotlight elsewhere. I suspect there may only be one change as Kidney's record suggests significant unease with Eoin Reddan over the years. The O'Leary 'extra back-row' argument does carry some weight, but surely Twickenham represents the ideal opportunity to test the Leinster half-back unit a level up.
In the front-row, Rory Best is a straight swap for Jerry Flannery. It speaks volumes for the Banbridge man's physical and mental strength that he has recovered from a long-term injury so quickly.
Cian Healy should continue at loose-head and rightly so, although encouragingly, Marcus Horan appeared well on the way to returning to full match fitness for Munster against Edinburgh last Friday.
At tight-head there is a case for Tom Court's inclusion from the off. However, with Best the only enforced change, there is, from the head coach's perspective, the chance to get Paris out of the system for all but one of the forward unit which was out-muscled in France. I am not, nor will I ever be, an advocate of change for change's sake.
Making wholesale changes mid-tournament is fraught with danger. However, where measured change provides every opportunity of winning the next match, then minor surgery is justified. Were Kidney to make five or six changes, it would be tantamount to admitting he got it badly wrong for Paris. The reality is he picked his best available 15 only to be beaten by a better team playing better rugby on the day.
It was, however, a costly Magners League weekend for the Irish management with both Donnacha Ryan and Sean O'Brien suffering serious injuries.
Added to the absence of Flannery, Kearney, Fitzgerald and Denis Leamy, it would have made Twickenham a mission impossible in times past. But that is why the squad principle is now so important and why today's team announcement is so critical.
Shane Jennings, Kevin McLaughlin, Donncha O'Callaghan, Horan and Sean Cronin could return to the forward mix, but one player I fear who may have been jettisoned that little bit early is Alan Quinlan. Like Ryan, he has the facility to cover the back-five forward positions. He has, in my view, much to offer the extended squad at the very least.
Stephen Keogh and Peter Stringer's performances at the weekend also merit a mention. Keogh -- as an abrasive ball carrier -- and Stringer -- as the slickest scrum-half passer bar none -- provided a timely reminder for Michael Cheika and Tony McGahan, never mind Kidney, that they haven't gone away.
As for Ulster and Brian McLaughlin, it sure is a long, hard and frustrating learning process. The canny Ulster mentor must have been tearing his hair out (or what's left of it) at the undue haste with which his forwards and halves went for the drop goal in the dying minutes of Friday's encounter, with his team tied at 22-22. Who said it was ever meant to be easy?