With a number of World Cup positions still up for grabs this weekend, the next few days is the "last chance saloon" for many of the fringe players hoping to twist Declan Kidney’s arm.
One such player is Leinster’s dynamo flanker Shane Jennings, a player just back from injury and hoping to impress Declan Kidney enough to warrant a ticket to New Zealand. Speaking to ex-English secondrow veteran Ben Kay during the week, he said that Jennings was one of the best genuine open-side flankers he had ever played with, and Kay knows a thing or two about what it takes to win a World Cup.
With a probable mix of 16 forwards to 14 backs in his 30-man squad, it would appear that Kidney will only opt for five specialist looseforwards and one utility player (Donnacha Ryan). The selection of Jennings could be crucial to Ireland's World Cup optimism. Last weekend’s games saw the value of carrying a good openside flanker. Welsh No7 Sam Warburton was the player of the match in Cardiff, completely overshadowing England’s bulkier but slower pack, while in South Africa, Australia’s David Pocock was the main reason for the Wallabies’ win.
In fact, South Africa, who have always had a penchant for more robust, physical ball carriers, struggled all day at the breakdown where they inevitably found that Pocock and Co had already beaten them to the ball. At this stage Ireland have just one specialist No7 in Munster’s David Wallace, but even Wallace will admit he is not a Pocock, Ritchie McCaw or Warburton type of player. Wallace’s strength is in his powerful dynamism, and in his world-class ability as a ball carrier. If Jennings can prove his big match fitness to Kidney, and Ireland are seeking to play a wider, more expansive Leinster-type of game plan in New Zealand (which is what it will take to progress), then, in my opinion, he must travel.
It was fairly obvious that with two narrow losses already under his belt Kidney was always going to unveil his strongest XV for Saturday’s game against France. And, despite what people may say about “getting a performance”, Kidney knows he needs a win to build positive confidence and momentum for New Zealand. Despite Marc Lievremont’s continuous tinkering over the past few years he has the luxury of being able to roll out a number of French sides of equal strength in depth. In fact, most worrying for Kidney is France’s tight five tomorrow, with a menacing looking front row cockpit of Nicolas Mas and Jean- Baptiste Poux. Even more alarming for Kidney was Mike Ross’s calf tweak last weekend that saw him leave the field prematurely in Bordeaux.
Ironically for a player that could not force his way into the Irish team a year or so ago, when Ross left, the Irish scrum capitulated. HEARTBEAT Ross has become so vital to Ireland’s chances that his calf strain, regardless of how insignificant, will have to be closely and critically monitored; they can be niggly enough injuries if not given adequate time to repair and can reoccur in a heartbeat – just ask longterm sufferer Jerry Flannery.
So what can we take from Kidney’s selections this weekend? Well, it’s pretty obvious that Felix Jones’ inclusion in the stronger Saturday side indicates that Geordan Murphy, despite all his experience, probably won’t be on the plane to New Zealand. Granted, Kidney knows what Murphy can offer, and Rob Kearney for that matter, so it’s also about assessing whether Jones has the big match temperament in the biggest game of his upwardly mobile career. Isaac Boss got a start at No9 last night and again it looks as if it is a straight head-to-head selection between himself and the more youthful Connor Murray, who replaced him in the second half for the third scrum-half position. Like Murphy, Boss gives Kidney experience and an ability to play two types of game, but Murray has quickly established himself as one of the quickest passers of the ball in the country and may just have a better ability to set Ireland's backline alight.
Ireland’s poor set-piece play last weekend sees the veteran John ‘Bull’ Hayes still in with a very good chance of overtaking Tony Buckley as the back-up specialist tight head. Hayes is one of the main reasons why Ireland's lineout was often regarded as one of the best in the world over the past decade or so. But it looked far from giant-killing last weekend, when both the throwing from hooker Rory Best and the communication went badly astray. In the Irish backline, Ulster's winger Andrew Trimble has been the star performer over the first two weeks, and for a player that may have been on the edge of selection a month ago he has grabbed his chance with both hands.
Another quality performance this weekend against France, backed up by Trimble's performances in New Zealand last year, and the Ulsterman is now a certainty.