Kidney to stick with tried and trusted for Boks battle
"LIKE coming home," was how Declan Kidney summed up the experience of Ireland returning to Lansdowne Road after three years in exile and there was a sense of homecoming also about his selection for Saturday's clash with South Africa.
After all the various and ongoing injury issues that have dogged the Ireland coach this year, he has returned to the tried and trusted with his team for Saturday, with the likes of hooker Sean Cronin and back-row Sean O'Brien losing out to more experienced campaigners.
Aside from the half-backs, the backline is identical to the one that started in the Grand Slam clincher against Wales a year and a half ago, as is the back-row and, in total, 16 of Saturday's 22 were involved that famous afternoon in Cardiff.
Captain Brian O'Driscoll and left-wing Luke Fitzgerald were always likely to start once they had shown sufficient progress with their respective injury issues and Mick O'Driscoll was the logical replacement for the injured Paul O'Connell, given how successfully he has filled that role for Munster and in Ireland's last international against Australia on the summer tour.
At half-back, Leinster's combination of Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan get the nod, but having the experienced in-form Munster duo of Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer on the bench provides Kidney with high-class game-changing options.
Given how well O'Gara has played this season, the fact that Sexton was still selected ahead of him copperfastens the impression that the Corkman, who will win his 100th cap if he features on Saturday, is now the designated back-up out-half. That being said, O'Gara's enduring qualities as a playmaker and inherent determination mean you can never categorically rule out a shift in the pecking order down the line.
It is in the front-row where the greatest change has been wrought since the Grand Slam was secured. Cian Healy and Tony Buckley have taken over from Marcus Horan and John Hayes as first-choice props, while, in the absence of the injured Jerry Flannery, Rory Best's selection ahead of Cronin would appear to be based on the Ulsterman's greater experience and scrummaging power. However, the Connacht hooker's ability on the burst could be a valuable tool when the game breaks up in the second half.
Given his superb form for Leinster, O'Brien can consider himself unlucky to miss out on a place in the 22. David Wallace has been Kidney's go-to guy in the back-row over many years and has never let the side down and, though there were concerted and justified calls for O'Brien to start at No 7, the coach was always likely to go with the Munster man.
Denis Leamy's return to form and fitness gains him the back-row cover role and Kidney acknowledged that this was the area of greatest competition when confirming his trust in the balance of his starting trio.
"Yeah, I would agree with that, but there's also been times in there when Denis (Leamy) hasn't been available and now Sean (O'Brien) has come in as well," said Kidney.
"Kevin (McLaughlin) has been out too and (John) Muldoon had a good summer tour and is coming back well now after his broken arm. It would be wrong of me not to mention that Chris (Henry), Shane Jennings and Niall Ronan all did well too against Australia (on the summer tour).
"So, we have a lot of Irish guys coming through in those positions and while we've gone for those three, with Denis playing as well as he is and Sean playing as well as he is, I can't make any promises to anybody.
"That's tough on the players and it's my job to make the calls, but it's a situation you want to be in when you look at the games we have ahead, not just this month but next year too."
The South Africans arrive in Dublin tomorrow with a depleted and, possibly, demoralised squad after an unrelentingly disappointing season. Their backline, in particular, has been ripped asunder by injury, but Kidney stressed his admiration for the quality of player produced in South Africa and the proven excellence of their forward unit.
"We know that whatever combination they come up with it will be very good," he said. "Sometimes we lose sight of the size of the game in South Africa compared to the size of the game here; it's just enormous over there.
"(Bakkies) Botha and (Victor) Matfield's experience on the international scene is enormous and Bakkies will be back in to try and prove a point.
"I expect it to be hugely physical; it always is against South Africa. Both sides want to win and when it gets to elite international level, it's like a final -- in the oldest international ground in the world. It's a huge incentive to be part of that; it's a special occasion."