Tuesday 24 October 2017

Five key decisions Kidney needs to get right

David Kelly

David Kelly

If the soundings within the Irish camp are to be believed, the paranoia surrounding one of Declan Kidney's most important team selections ever has reached absurd levels.

The team has already been picked; there have been no training sessions since Tuesday, so no player has had the opportunity to further announce his claims.

Unless, that is, the Irish management decide upon a novel approach by assessing players on how they spent their down day. Would Mike Ross, for example, lose out to Tom Court because he watched a 'Friends' DVD instead of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'? Might Devin Toner take an even bigger leap in the standings by supping coffee in Costa, rather than Starbucks?

Sadly, the Irish management cannot indulge in such flights of fancy; yet, to beat the All Blacks will require as much mental dexterity from the coaches as it will physical durability and psychological strength from the players.

If the Irish had their alarm clocks primed for 5.30 this morning to fretfully scan the All Blacks team which whizzed electronically across the globe, they are already mentally 7-0 down.

Similarly, if Ireland are so wary about shielding their selection, delayed deliberately until after their opponents have played their hand (have the visitors threatened to bug the team hotel?), then this is also wasted energy.

Ireland's concentration should be singularly devoted to selecting the best possible XV to defeat the All Blacks -- conservatism is not an option, as standing still against the world's best is fatal.

Bravery alone will not defeat the All Blacks this Saturday. Bravery in selection just might. And there are five key areas for Kidney to ponder, each decision crucial to determining the boldness of Ireland's ambition as they seek to end one of the most miserable records in international rugby head-to-heads.

1 -- Full-back

Rob Kearney's form remains an issue, notwithstanding his knee problems. If there is any doubt about his fitness, his selection is too risky. Aside from that, other options have to be explored.

Luke Fitzgerald didn't disgrace himself last week but then those in front of him barely offered him an attacking platform. He is the best tackler of the back three and this may work in his favour.

Geordan Murphy's tackling, particularly against bigger opposition, has historically been a weakness but he remains Ireland's best counter-attacker and, crucially, he can offload before the tackle better than his rivals.

2 -- Out-half

A straight choice between Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Sexton. Ireland have already declared their intention to play a spoiling game for the opening half, in order to ensure the All Blacks don't build a significant lead.

Both out-halves can operate under these proscriptive conditions, provided the correctly chosen pack can afford them the necessary latitude from the set-piece and the breakdown to perform in that manner.

Sexton would be the better option if Ireland have the confidence enough to play right on the gain-line. Sadly, the poverty of the attack in the previous two games indicates that this is not a proficient enough element of Ireland's current playing level.

However, choosing O'Gara would be meat and drink to the All Blacks midfield and back-row, who have historically chosen the Munster man as a preferred route for explosive physical contact in that channel.

Perhaps his control and awareness may be best suited to enabling Ireland to go for broke when the game enters the defining quarter -- should the visitors remain within touching distance.

3 -- Scrum-half

Ostensibly, there are a surfeit of options here but, with Isaac Boss deemed surplus to requirements, his Leinster colleague Eoin Reddan and Peter Stringer are the only two realistic candidates.

Reddan has performed poorly this November, even if he hasn't been helped by his pack, but the errors he has been making will be ruthlessly punished by an unforgiving opposition and hence his selection would be a liability.

Originally chosen on the basis of his partnership with Leinster colleague Sexton, form has utterly undermined that argument and Kidney must now turn to the man he dropped in the knock-out stages en route to Munster's 2008 Heineken Cup success.

Even with a pack failing to clear out effectively, Stringer has proved immensely superior in terms of flinging the ball out from the wreckage.

The danger is that Kidney may revert to the old firm at half-back for the 56th time.

However, there is nothing new to be learned here and a novel partnership of Sexton and Stringer, allowing quick ball to a pivot closer to the gain-line, may broaden Ireland's attacking options and provide sterner questions for the opposition defence.

4 -- Tight-Head Prop

The question here is simple -- how best can Ireland hope to achieve maximum security in an area where they have struggled in recent times. The gambit of deploying John Hayes last time out backfired spectacularly, so it remains to be seen how rudely awoken management were by this setback.

Tom Court's versatility requires him to be deployed in reserve, especially since the IRB persist in the ridiculous restriction of front-row replacements on the bench for international competition.

Mike Ross' scrummaging ability has already been identified at Leinster -- seemingly belatedly -- under the tutelage of scrummaging expert Greg Feek, who has now been subsumed into the Irish set-up.

Critics will charge that Ross offers little else throughout the field.

This point is entirely academic, as neither did Hayes against Samoa but, more importantly, Ireland cannot operate without scrum ball so the point is rendered entirely redundant.

The best front-row scrummaging unit must start from the opening whistle. Without such a platform, Ireland may be chasing the game earlier than necessary and subsequent change could well come too late.

5 -- Second-row

A similar logic applies when assessing the options in the second-row of the scrum -- Ireland's desperate need to ensure that the side can at least guarantee primary possession, even with their outside backs struggling for cohesion.

Devin Toner managed this -- albeit against a less reputed Samoan second-row than the world-class operation his predecessor Mick O'Driscoll had so many difficulties in countering -- even on his own throw. Toner's line-out calling was more logical, even if the defensive effort was non-existent against the minnows from the Pacific.

He may struggle to effectively clear and hit rucks given his inordinate height. But without gaining an effective set-piece to begin with, contemplating further difficulties out the pitch are superfluous if Ireland can't manage to secure their position from touch -- especially as Ireland's stated tactic is to develop an unstructured game to frustrate the All Blacks.

Leo Cullen's absence represents a missed opportunity in terms of organisation and being mindful of the team's current leadership inadequacies -- particularly after Donnacha Ryan's suspension, which means O'Driscoll seems the only available bench option.

Paul O'Connell's absence remains a depressing reality for this Irish squad in so many ways.

Sadly, Ireland have no further room for change; the midfield will remain the same in the absence of tested alternatives, while the back-row understudies have done little to elbow out the less than distinguished starting trio.

Irish Independent

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