Monday 23 April 2018

New faces must not be just for show

Now is the time for Kidney to take a risk with genuine competition needed to spark interest ahead of All Blacks test

So where to from here? And spare us the drivel from players and management about getting back up on the horse. That horse has bolted ... let it go. Saturday was a nightmare for the Union and for the players. On and off the field it went so badly wrong. The bottom line was a flat performance in front of an unmotivated crowd.

The coming of the All Blacks will still draw us in our droves on Saturday week, but another insipid performance and the governing body won't be able to give away tickets for the visit of the Pumas eight days after that.

Bear in mind too, that game -- the fourth Test in as many weeks -- is on a Sunday, and I wouldn't bet on too many outside the Pale rushing to D4 for the traditional paint-drying affair against Argentina.

But for now all eyes turn to Samoa. A game that was never going to be a foregone conclusion has suddenly assumed enormous importance. Don't kid yourself, we badly need a win, and a performance of substance. Just as winning breeds confidence, losing has the opposite effect. And Ireland have suffered four Test defeats on the bounce -- and six straight losses altogether.

We should beat the Samoans, but given where the team is now at, we need a convincing performance as well as a result.

Against South Africa, just the kick of the ball and thickness of the post separated us from a draw we did not deserve. Had Ronan O'Gara's well-struck conversation hit the target it would have been a travesty, with the Boks having no one to blame but themselves.

Inspired though Declan Kidney's decision to change the half-backs was, Springbok coach Peter de Villiers almost pressed the self-destruct button when calling Morne Steyn ashore and sending on debutant out-half Patrick Lambie. It was a huge risk beyond tactical reasoning, given its timing and context. In the end, De Villiers and his much-superior team got away with it, but only just.

For the Ireland head coach, I would imagine Saturday's performance and result may lead to a rethink in overall strategy.

Samoa -- the only November opponents ranked outside the top 10 -- always represented the best chance for experimentation and delving deeper into the squad. However, an air of caution, and the dire need for a meaningful win, looms large after Saturday's defeat and the manner of it.

To that end, the midnight oil will have been burned ahead of today's team announcement. The scope for change and measured experimentation is certainly there, given the enforced absences of Tony Buckley -- for the whole series -- and Rob Kearney.

I would look at Sean Cronin and Mike Ross alongside Cian Healy (and at some stage Tom Court) in the front row. New-look and risky? Yes, but why not?

In the second row, the temptation has to be there to give all 6ft 10ins of Devin Toner a run. If he is good enough to play Heineken Cup rugby, then he is worth trying out.

The line-out needs an injection of ball-winning potential, badly. I remember when Malcolm O'Kelly first came on the scene -- against New Zealand in 1997 -- questions were asked of his physique and whether or not he was up to it. He passed with flying colours and became a permanent fixture in the second row.

In the back row, I would leave Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip in but bring in Sean O'Brien for David Wallace, with Denis Leamy again providing cover in all three positions on the bench.

Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara should start at half-back, with the incentive of earning the right to be the first-choice picks against New Zealand seven days on.

I would switch the in-form Luke Fitzgerald to full-back, thereby easing Keith Earls back into full Test action on the wing, with Andrew Trimble in reserve. The alternative is a straight swap between Earls and Kearney, given the Thomond man's greater experience there for Munster.

In the centre too there is scope for experimentation. If it doesn't work, then the tried and trusted Gordon D'Arcy/Brian O'Driscoll combo will reunite against the All Blacks. But for Samoa, why not have Paddy Wallace at No 12 alongside O'Driscoll in a search for a midfield dynamic that might unlock the Kiwi centre partnership in a more potent and creative way?

That would make for eight changes in personnel and one positional switch from the side that started against the Boks -- ensuring that 23 of the original 34-man squad named for the Autumn Series would get a run in the opening two games.

It would also provide scope to bring Damian Varley and possibly Isaac Boss into the match-day squad. Kidney could even opt to give Shane Horgan a run on the right wing, where the Leinster man would certainly not be found wanting.

We would then be moving into double figures in terms of change within a seven-day turnaround. The key for Kidney is in balancing continuity with the need for rest, the need for change and, most significantly, combinations in his mind to face New Zealand.

Even in a demanding four-week schedule, change for the sake of change serves no real purpose.

At a time when the Irish camp needs a substantial win (in terms of quality more than points on the board) to boost morale, it is through measured surgery -- change with a purpose -- that it is best brought about.

I suspect the team I have selected to be a fair bit off the mark compared to what Kidney will pick, but at a time when we are crying out for something different, the time for risk-taking is with us now.

All told, my selection would make for a XV much changed from last weekend but with enough ammunition to take us successfully through the next game and in the process provide sufficient food for thought to make the selection to face the All Blacks anything but a fait accompli.

Irish Independent

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