Monday 18 December 2017

Ideal time to test Ross

Chance to unleash Leinster colossus on mighty Pumas but Buckley back in the frame

Front-row Mike Ross looks best equipped to do damage against Argentina on Sunday
Front-row Mike Ross looks best equipped to do damage against Argentina on Sunday

Hugh Farrelly

OPPORTUNITY knocks for Ireland to put Mike Ross' scrummaging prowess to the test against Argentina this weekend following John Hayes' release from the international squad.

Hayes has returned to provincial duties ahead of Friday's assignment away to the Dragons, leaving Ross as one of four props in the Ireland squad as scrum coach Greg Feek and forwards coach Gert Smal prepare to face the power of the Puma pack.

Tony Buckley is one of those four, along with Cian Healy and Tom Court, the duo who started the 18-38 defeat to New Zealand last weekend, but Buckley has not played since damaging his hip against South Africa three weekends ago.

The Shannon man was not expected to return before the end of the November Series but, although he has been cleared to play by Ireland's medical team, throwing him in against a scrummaging unit as powerful as Argentina would be a risk - although given the time they have invested in Buckley, one the Ireland management may be prepared to take.

Court replaced Buckley against South Africa and did well at tight-head, where he also impressed the following weekend against Samoa once he was switched over from the loose-head side.

Last weekend, the Ulster man helped to provide Ireland's most secure scrum of the month, again at tight-head, so, with Court's capabilities in that role now established, Sunday looks like the perfect opportunity to have a look at Ross -- generally accepted to be the most destructive scrummager available to coach Declan Kidney.

Alternatively, Ireland's desire to play the more fluid game that ruffled the All Blacks would suggest that management could be more inclined to go with Healy, Court and Buckley (if available) in their match-day 22, particularly as Court and Buckley cover both sides of the scrum.

However, Argentina have a more dangerous scrum than New Zealand, where Tony Woodcock has struggled this month, and their prop Rodrigo Roncero is the type of small, stocky loose-head that tends to cause the 6ft 5in Buckley the greatest difficulty.

Ross looks best equipped to do damage against Argentina following a series of dominating displays for Leinster this season -- including last Friday, when he came off the bench to wreak havoc against the Dragons.

Detractors claim the Fermoy man's loose game does not match his set-piece strength but Ross' contribution around the park has benefited from regular game time this season and, for all the desire for an open game against Argentina, the likelihood is that this Test will be a dogged forward-dominated battle.

The Pumas' pack is a collection of grizzled performers such as props Roncero and Martin Scelzo, hooker Mario Ledesma, second-row Patricio Albacete and No 8 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and, though Ireland look to have the greater attacking threat in the backline, they need a scrum platform to flourish.

With the team announcement delayed until Friday, the same day as Argentina name their side, Kidney and his management team can properly assess their options and the readiness of Buckley, while the influence of Feek who knows Ross's capabilities well from their work at Leinster could also come into play.

"We need more time to think (about selection) and also because of the injuries," said team manager Paul McNaughton, who acknowledged the challenge posed by the Argentinians' scrum. "A decision was made. Declan talked to John (Hayes) and we wanted to get more game time for John (with Munster).

"Argentina are a fairly experienced front-row but you have got Tony Buckley and Tom and Mike and Cian who are all getting game-time. There will be a much younger unit against a much more grizzly unit alright. We have got to go that way and look at the various options that we have in the front-row and November is a good time to see it."

Leo Cullen and Damien Varley could also come into the picture, as could Geordan Murphy after all three joined up with the squad. Varley has a shoulder injury but is expected to be available, while Cullen has proved his fitness with Leinster and his experience and hard edge would be invaluable against the Pumas.

With Rory Best injured, Varley and Sean Cronin are the hookers available to Kidney, with the Munster man ready to provide cover for Cronin, who put in an impressive 60 minutes against the All Blacks. Murphy looks favourite to start in the No 15 jersey, with Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald both out.

Defence coach Les Kiss said that, despite the disappointment of defeat to New Zealand, the Irish players were encouraged by the performance.

"There was a lot of emotion there," said Kiss of the All Blacks game.

"We got the ball in our hands and put it to places where we wanted to play the game.

"We wanted to create opportunities against the All Blacks and I think that came to the fore. The guys are genuinely energised by that," he added.

Irish Independent

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