Tuesday 16 January 2018

Keeping the faith

Kidney banks on misfiring players to raise game for All Blacks

Irish out-half Jonathon Sexton goes through his paces during training at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
Irish out-half Jonathon Sexton goes through his paces during training at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.

Hugh Farrelly

IRELAND coach Declan Kidney has placed his trust in the side that came up short against South Africa for tomorrow's daunting showdown with New Zealand.

The team shows one, injury-enforced, change to the one that started the 23-21 defeat to the Springboks, with Tom Court starting at tight-head prop -- as Tony Buckley is ruled out of action -- and John Hayes providing cover on the bench.

That means recalls for Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan at half-back, and Rory Best and Mick O'Driscoll in the pack, with Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner all named among the replacements.

After a tough day in the line-out against South Africa, when Ireland lost six of their own throws, Kidney has resisted the urge to start Toner -- who masterminded an accomplished line-out performance on his debut against Samoa last weekend -- and placed his faith in O'Driscoll's ability to rise to the challenge.

In doing so, there are echoes of the summer tour, when O'Driscoll struggled against the All Blacks and was forced off injured but rewarded Kidney's loyalty with a much improved display against Australia two weeks later.

"What I've done is placed a trust," said Kidney. "They've had some more time together. South Africa have some very good combinations, different combinations to Samoa, and so we have both options within our 22. The experience the lads will have picked up and what they will have learned will stand to us."

O'Driscoll will be up against a new All Blacks second-row combination of Anthony Boric and Tom Donnelly after Brad Thorn was ruled out with a hamstring strain, but while the in-form Thorn will be a significant loss for the All Blacks, Kidney said the late change has made Ireland's preparations more complicated.

"Now that it's changed, it could seem to be a disadvantage (for New Zealand) because it's a new combination," said Kidney.

"But it will also be an advantage in that we won't be as aware now, because we'll have no analysis of it, and the timing of how things will go, is different.

"We'll just have to see what pressure we can put on them at line-out time. But that said, New Zealand don't kick the ball too often to touch. They'll keep it in play, so the number of line-outs in a New Zealand match can be down on your average Test match."

O'Gara and Stringer were pushing hard for inclusion against the All Blacks after decent displays against Samoa, but Sexton and Reddan have been given the opportunity to put a mixed showing against the Springboks behind them.

Kidney said the fact they are regular half-back partners featured in the selection decision, but it was not the decisive factor.

"It's a factor without being overly significant; we need to try different combinations, too. International football does not allow you, like provincial football, to be chopping and changing all of the time.

"We need to find out a few things. In this particular case, it wasn't a case of 'if he's playing, the other guy has to play with him'. I'm quite happy to mix and match.

"It's a factor, but it's not one where if one plays, the other has to play with him."

Given the impressive recent displays of O'Gara, Stringer, Cronin and Toner, this team represents a faith rather than form selection, but the half-backs and O'Driscoll have the capacity to make the most of their opportunity while Kidney has game-changing options in reserve.


The Munster half-backs showed as much when they dragged Ireland back into the contest with South Africa, while you would imagine that Toner will be sprung immediately if the line-out begins to wobble.

Cronin is unlucky to lose out at hooker after a very effective showing against the Samoans, but Best's greater experience told, helped by his positive scrummaging impact when he came on last weekend.

After his electric display for Munster against Australia on Tuesday, Keith Earls gets the outside-backs replacement slot ahead of Geordan Murphy and Andrew Trimble, while Denis Leamy covers the back-row.

Captain Brian O'Driscoll was bullish about Ireland's prospects tomorrow, in spite of their recent struggles, and said he is not dwelling on the fact that this could be one of his last opportunities to beat New Zealand.

"It's there but what's the point in thinking about something like that?" said the 31-year-old. "I haven't decided how long I'm going to play so there's nothing about a thought in the back of the head that this is the last time, second-last time or anything like that.

"There's nothing to be gained by that, I'm a live-in-the-now person. I'm doing what I do with every Test match, treating it as I always do as potentially my last Test match.

"I said after the Springboks game that in all games you have to take what good you can out of it.

"The fact that we went after it in the second half when maybe they took their foot off the pedal, or weren't allowed to play as much, meant we scored tries that came from having a cut and not being afraid.

"Maybe that's what we need from minute one (against New Zealand) rather than waiting to be 40 points down."

Irish Independent

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