Sunday 18 March 2018

Play the Munster way

Ireland coach Declan Kidney may decide to go with the tried-and-trusted Ronan O'Gara-Peter Stringer partnership against New Zealand. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ireland coach Declan Kidney may decide to go with the tried-and-trusted Ronan O'Gara-Peter Stringer partnership against New Zealand. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

tony ward

If Saturday's drubbing by the All Blacks represented "a dose of reality" for Scottish coach Andy Robinson, then Irish equivalent Declan Kidney should be grateful for small mercies.

Ireland underlined their shortcomings once again with a poor display, but at least there was the comfort of a home victory to soften the blow.

If the All Blacks' display at Murrayfield provided a chilling glimpse of what lies ahead for Kidney's men, then Lansdowne Road and an insipid performance against Samoa provided proof of an Irish squad low on confidence at this critical stage in its 2011 World Cup development.

Despite a 10-point victory, the Irish display was a huge letdown as the hosts limped over the winning line without a shred of conviction.

Brian O'Driscoll's desperate clearance kick to touch to bring the curtain down on a second indifferent performance in a week summed up the frustration and desperation. He and his relieved team couldn't get off the Aviva pitch quickly enough. Yes, a win is a win and it does arrest that recent losing slide, but in terms of instilling confidence ahead of the visit of the All Blacks, forget about it.

I have little doubt we will witness a different Irish performance next Saturday. The occasion and the opposition will elicit that. For the first time in the new stadium, we will have an Ireland team playing in front of a full house against the one rugby nation it has yet to beat.

When James O'Connor nailed that winning conversion for the Wallabies in Hong Kong three weeks ago, it showed that the all-conquering All Blacks are beatable after all. Of course they are. But my own feeling at the time was that, while their attempt at a world record run of Test wins was halted, the resolve within the New Zealand squad to go after another Home Nations Grand Slam would be strengthened by the loss to Australia.

Only three times before have the Kiwis completed the Grand Slam, with Graham Mourie's side of 1978 the first to achieve the feat, and Graham Henry's group triumphing in 2005 and '08.

They are already halfway there on this tour, so where does that leave Kidney? The Samoan Test ought to have added to the selection conundrum he had been faced with, given the opportunity the game provided for so many individuals to put their hands up.

Alas, in a weird sort of way, it has made the coach's task so much easier. In postponing the team announcement to Thursday -- in tandem with Henry -- Kidney has bought himself some time to see how certain individuals and combinations gel in training.

But however underwhelming the opening salvo against the Springboks was and so poor was the Samoan follow-on that many who appeared under pressure after the Boks' blowout are now back in pole position to face the All Blacks.

Indeed, with the honourable exception of Devin Toner, I cannot think of a player who left an indelible mark. The key decisions to be made are at full-back, half-back and tight-head prop. Many of those who played in the first-choice line-up against the Boks will be back this week, for no other reason than that the obvious alternatives failed to grab their chance.

In the front-row, Cian Healy and Rory Best should start at loose-head and hooker respectively, leaving it a call between Tom Court, Mike Ross and John Hayes to replace the injured Tony Buckley.

Kidney may shift Court across from loose-head but, for me, Ross has done enough for Leinster to deserve a starting place. A scrum which stuttered against the Samoans could buckle unless the tight-head deficiency is addressed against the All Blacks. Ross' strength is in the tight and if that means cutting cloth to suit that measure, then so be it.

In the second-row, Donncha O'Callaghan has still to fire. Toner deserves to be alongside O'Callaghan for the big one, but he needs the vastly experienced Munster man to step up to the plate and lead by example with a big performance.

In the back-row, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip should return en bloc. They were outgunned against the Boks but neither Denis Leamy nor Sean O'Brien delivered sufficiently against the Samoans to justify change.

At scrum-half it's Peter Stringer's bullet-like service versus Eoin Reddan's high-tempo mazy running around the fringe. Both will be used, but in the absence of Tomas O'Leary, it's Stringer to start. At out-half the call between Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Sexton is very tight.

Only Kidney knows how he wants his game-running pivot to go about his business on the day. The extra two days' training may help clear his mind, but with a back-line low on confidence and form, the case for both Munster half-backs adopting a Munster-like approach is considerable.

In the centre, the O'Driscoll/Gordon D'Arcy combination must be reinstalled given the horses-for-courses rationale.

Tommy Bowe will man the right with Luke Fitzgerald back on the left and either Rob Kearney or Geordan Murphy at full-back.

If fit, then I would go with the in-form Kearney for a game that, while it might not end with a positive result, will certainly get the blood flowing to heat up a cold November evening.

Irish Independent

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