The reason Leo Cullen should not go to New Zealand
Published 13/08/2011 | 05:00
Nobody ever made money by second-guessing Declan Kidney and this World Cup warm-up series is certainly not going to be a bonanza for punters. However, the man himself has made it clear that this week's selection is based on a plan decided before the warm-up campaign started, and he can hardly be blamed for that level of consistency.
First of all, the bad news remains the bad news. Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Stephen Ferris are clearly not yet fit enough to play a game of Test rugby and like Thomas the Apostle, we will not believe until we see them contesting the ball in the heat of battle.
The absence of the two front-rank centres demonstrates the paucity of choice available to Kidney. One shudders to think what might happen if Ireland were forced to rely on the second and third-ranked partnerships. Keith Earls cannot be happy, as versatility gets one on the plane but not a start in a Test match.
The same full-back and wings as last week are surprising, as was the coach's assessment of their performance. His opinion was that "the back three played well. When the ball was kicked back to them, they came back with a bit of purpose."
That is the kind of maddening statement to which Kidney is prone and makes one wonder if we were all watching the same match.
The big omission is David Wallace, while selecting Sean O'Brien at openside, where he cannot play, and moving Donnacha Ryan to number six while leaving Jamie Heaslip on the bench demonstrates an annoying inconsistency. Two games into the series and as yet there is no clear first-choice back-row appearing.
It is strange too that Paul O'Connell doesn't make a start as the side continues to be led by Leo Cullen. This could be make-or-break time for the stand-in leader as last week Cullen displayed -- even by his average standards -- a complete lack of dynamism. Looking at him, it is hard to believe that his formative years were at No 8.
The Rugby World Cup will be about the new game that more than ever resembles rugby league. Our primary opponents will play the game at a searing pace and the first improvement Ireland need today is a speeding up of thought and action.
Cullen should not go to New Zealand and that would be sad for one of the most honest players in the squad. Like Bob Casey, his former classmate at Blackrock College, he is a set-piece performer rather than a breaker of gain lines.
In contrast, the much-maligned Marc Lievremont seems to have a clear idea of his team. This week's selection looks 20 points better than Ireland and the coach has promised to play a different XV in the return game. That is an awesome testament to the depth of the French squad.
Vincent Clerc has been named on the wing despite nursing a knee injury; with prop Fabien Barcella named 23rd man notwithstanding a bicep injury. Dimitri Szarzewski makes his first appearance since recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
"We're impatient," admitted Lievremont when questioned over Barcella's inclusion on the bench.
Unlike Ireland, whose lack of depth makes kid-glove treatment vital for doubtful starters, the French will only go with their fittest performers to New Zealand. It has always been thus.
It is important when watching these games to bear in mind their purpose. As it is almost certain that the coach has already decided on the bulk of the squad, these contests are not about selection. Strategy and game plans are being worked out on the training ground, so we will learn little in the coming weeks.
This is about measuring fitness to play and nothing else. In the case of the injured it's a final check-up and for the fit and well it's an opportunity to get to the pace of the game after a lay-off.
So far, there are more questions than answers. The position of Conor Murray is a case in point. Does a place on the bench mean he is a serious contender or filling up space? Surely he has to get meaningful game time this evening which may well be unfair on Eoin Reddan but does anyone doubt that the Leinster scrum-half will not go? Murray brings a lot to the table -- bar experience.
After all, it is not as if Ireland is awash with talent in the position.
Ireland will almost certainly lose in Bordeaux this evening. But I would be happy if there was an indication that a new star had arrived at scrum-half, that Ireland can get more than 40pc possession, and that Rob Kearney and his colleagues on the wings understand that kicking to them is an opportunity to attack.