Thursday 22 March 2018

'Our measure will be in how we respond'

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"Nobody enjoyed that. Nobody around the country liked it, you can tell everybody is looking for us to get it right."

Declan Kidney needs a response from his players when they assemble next month as the Ireland coach enters the final year of his contract.

The 60-0 defeat to New Zealand last June will loom large over everything this season and an under-par performance against South Africa on November 10 will exacerbate the issue.

The Ireland coach could have done without the news that Rob Kearney will miss the Guinness Series after he undergoes surgery this morning. The positive bulletins emerging from both the player, and Leinster, proved to be false dawns as his troublesome back injury has ruled him out until after Christmas.

It overshadowed proceedings at Lansdowne Road yesterday, when the Corkman, flanked by his loyal assistants Les Kiss and Gert Smal, confirmed that there will be no axe wielded after that disastrous June day in Hamilton when he led Ireland to the worst defeat in the country's history.

Of the 22 players who featured that day, Paddy Wallace, who started at inside centre having flown in from his holidays, and replacement hooker Sean Cronin are left out on form. Sean O'Brien and Kearney are injured and Declan Fitzpatrick has barely featured this season after also struggling with injuries.

There are new faces in the 31-man panel, but Richardt Strauss looks the most likely of the four uncapped players to be involved against South Africa on November 10, with the Thomond Park game against Fiji a more realistic option for Iain Henderson, Luke Marshall and Dave Kilcoyne.

With the IRB world ranking points that will determine the seedings for the 2015 World Cup up for grabs, and as he enters the first game of the last year of his current contract, the Corkman admitted he needs results next month.

But what are the things this squad need to address as they begin the post-Hamilton era?

Rebuilding confidence

The Hamilton hurt will only be lifted with a result or, at least, a strong performance against the Springboks and it's

Kidney's job to lift the spirits.

The squad addressed that defeat when they met at the start of the season and reviewed the tape. The coach expects a response.

"We have to get the balance right. We have to accept that (Hamilton), take the responsibility for it, make sure it never happens again. But we also have to take the confidence from a few performances we had before that and then get the mixture right," said Kidney.

"The measure of a person really is how you respond and that's what we'll see in November."

Hitting the ground running

The squad will assemble next week after another round of provincial action and Kidney has just seven training sessions to get things right for South Africa.

The Springboks will pick up where they left off after an, admittedly mixed, Rugby Championship, while Kidney and Co will need to get the players to gel having not lined out together since that disastrous defeat to New Zealand in June.

"We've two weeks to prepare for it and the trick is knowing what you can afford to leave out doing, because there's a heap of stuff we want to get to," he said.

"You cannot clutter their heads too much.

"We have to get the right balance between the amount of information we give them and then letting them settle down and just get into the routine for the match over that last three or four days. So, next week is huge for us."

Covering Kearney

The blow of losing Kearney came as a surprise to most and Kidney reacted by not naming a specialist full-back in his 31-man squad.

That means that Keith Earls looks set to wear the No 15 jersey against South Africa if he can overcome his own injury problems in time. He has won just four of his 32 caps at full-back and has played at centre for Munster this season.

Kidney will bring another back into his squad next week and namechecked out-halves Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley, who can cover the full-back position as No 10, where Ronan O'Gara is another doubt. Kidney has also referenced 19-year-old Connacht back Robbie Henshaw, along with Munster's Denis Hurley and Felix Jones.

Back-row balance

The Ireland coach has named four blindside flankers among his seven back-rows, with Chris Henry and Peter O'Mahony looking likely to fight it out for the openside jersey and provide cover for Jamie Heaslip at the same time.

In ignoring in-form, specialist opensides like Sean Dougall and Shane Jennings, the Ireland coach has put the emphasis on bigger, stronger ball-carrying options ahead of two bruising physical battles with the Springboks and Pumas.

"Chris has obviously been doing a good job at seven," Kidney acknowledges.

"Peter O'Mahony will probably get a run at seven this weekend and got a run there last year too.

"With the matches we have coming up we think that would be a good combination for us."

The Loose-head conundrum

There was plenty of focus on the emergence of prop Kilcoyne yesterday, but it should not be lost in that good news that he will be the third-choice tight-head behind Cian Healy and Tom Court.

The reality remains that an injury to Mike Ross would ruin Ireland's November, with Court the only player able to cover loose-head in the squad and, after Twickenham last season, no one wants to see that happen.

Like the full-backs, the loose-heads will be watched this weekend with Connacht's Ronan Loughney, Ulster's Fitzpatrick, Sale's Tony Buckley and Worcester's John Andress under review.

None of those are at Ross' level and his importance to the cause remains pre-eminent.

Irish Independent

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