Kidney playing his strongest hand
In-form Murphy, O'Brien and Ross join returning star names in powerful squad
AS yesterday's squad announcement testifies, Ireland are in a far healthier place than the last time they convened for a bout of international combat ahead of last summer's tour to the Antipodes.
Denis Leamy, Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls are all back in the fold, with Leo Cullen, Luke Fitzgerald and, hopefully, Jerry Flannery -- three others who missed the journey to New Zealand and Australia -- also set for reintroduction once they confirm their return to full fitness.
Once you factor in Geordan Murphy's unavailability for the November 6 Test with South Africa due to English club commitments with Leicester, this selection was along expected lines.
There were strong cases for the inclusion of Connacht tyros Fionn Carr on the wing and Jamie Hagan at tight-head prop but coach Declan Kidney opted to go with the proven qualities of Shane Horgan and John Hayes which, given the arduous and physical nature of facing up to South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina on successive weekends, was no great surprise.
There is welcome recognition of form in the presence of Leinster's Mike Ross and Munster's Johne Murphy, while O'Brien's barnstorming start to the season at open-side means no room for his Leinster team-mate Shane Jennings. Indeed, the re-strengthening of Kidney's back-row options means that none of the starting trio in Ireland's last Test against Australia in June (Jennings, Chris Henry and Niall Ronan) make the panel.
Isaac Boss slots in as third scrum-half behind Eoin Reddan and Peter Stringer, as Tomas O'Leary's broken thumb means he is ruled out until the latter stages of the series. Boss has 12 caps but the 30-year-old's last international appearance was off the bench during Ireland's pool exit to Argentina at the 2007 World Cup. The Tokorua man's return is a reflection of his relative rejuvenation since switching from Ulster to Leinster and the higher-profile nature of his involvement looks to have given him the edge over Connacht's Frank Murphy.
Paddy Wallace will continue to provide cover for Kidney's two in-form specialist out-halves, Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton, as he pushes for an inside-centre slot in his own right, while Devin Toner's form for Leinster sees him included to cater for the injury issues at second-row.
Although there were indications that Kidney would treat November's four-Test examination as a dry-run for their World Cup pool next year (albeit against far tougher opposition than Russia, the USA and Italy), the coach said South Africa is their sole focus, thus explaining the decision to allow the likes of Cullen and Fitzgerald time to recuperate with their province.
"There will be a lot of talk about the new stadium and the World Cup but the responsibility for the squad and management will be firmly to concentrate on the first game and then take things as they come in November," said Kidney.
"We will soak up all the excitement that goes with all that, but the focus for everybody on November 6 will be performing against South Africa. It is going to be a demanding month for the squad and the first time we have played four games.
"We felt it was important to have at least 30 fit players to choose from in terms of setting the foundations for November and it was better for those who picked up knocks to be assessed back in the provinces and when they have the all-clear to come back into the squad.
"Jerry (Flannery) and Luke (Fitzgerald) are in that position, as are fellas like Tomas (O'Leary) and Leo (Cullen), who may well come back into the mix depending on their recoveries and game time that they may need to build up over the next couple of weeks.
"We need everybody in a position to be able to contribute in training and while we may well leave a window for those coming back, all the players in the squad are deserving of their chance. There are a lot of players who are unlucky not to make this squad, but the door will remain open to them also during November to join up with the panel."
On that basis, the squad will be subjected to a considerable element of flux but, given the challenges against four of the more physical international sides on the circuit, that is no bad thing.
Counting the non-international losses to the Barbarians and the New Zealand Maori, Ireland go into November on a five-game losing run but the build-up has been encouraging, with the provinces going well and frontline players having more games behind them than at this stage last season.
Paul O'Connell's absence leaves a considerable gap in the second row, while O'Leary's physical presence will be missed, having been crucial to the 15-10 victory over the Springboks last year.
However, Kidney has a far stronger hand than he did five and a half months ago and based on yesterday's squad it appears to be a case of so far, so good.
Ireland squad (v South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina): R Best, I Boss, T Bowe, T Buckley, T Court, S Cronin, G D'Arcy, G Duffy, K Earls, S Ferris, S Horgan, J Hayes, C Healy, J Heaslip, M Horan, R Kearney, D Leamy, J Muldoon, J Murphy, D O'Callaghan, R O'Gara, S O'Brien, B O'Driscoll, M O'Driscoll, E Reddan, M Ross, D Ryan, J Sexton, P Stringer, D Toner, A Trimble, D Varley, D Wallace, P Wallace.