Thursday 22 March 2018

Samoa the perfect stage for Ross's audition

Hugh Farrelly

IT pays to plan ahead (it wasn't raining when Noah built his Ark) and Declan Kidney had a clear plan going into the November Internationals.

It is impossible to state precisely what the Ireland coach's ideal scenario was, but best estimates would suggest that it began with playing his front-liners in the opener against South Africa and securing Ireland's fourth straight home win over the Boks.

Then, he'd have planned on giving his bench from the first day a run against Samoa, buttressed by other experienced back-up and selected up-and-comers before reverting to the front-liners for the big one against the All Blacks.

The last Test against Argentina would then be a case who's left standing for the final grueller.

You expect the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised, but no one was expecting or preparing for the extent of South Africa's front-five domination last Saturday. You can single out Juan Smith's intercept try or the space left for Gio Aplon's score, but the Springboks' victory was founded squarely on their superiority from Nos 1-5.

Their scrum and line-out dominance was complete and, with first-choice tight-head Tony Buckley ruled out with a hip injury, the players who start in those positions on Saturday against Samoa have a real chance of being retained the following week. Tom Court and Sean Cronin were on the bench last weekend and they will start at loose-head and hooker respectively.

That leaves a vacancy in the problem position of tight-head and though logic decrees that it should be filled by Mike Ross, the indications are that Kidney will turn to his loyal servant of the past 12 years and ask John Hayes to wear the No 3 jersey.

Ross has shown the benefits this season of playing week after week. It is the scenario that brings the best out of the Leinster man, as was shown during his successful stint with Harlequins.

Hayes holds no fear for New Zealand, who have put the squeeze on the Cappamore man many times over the past 10 years, but All Blacks loose-head Tony Woodcock is a player that Ross could really go after. Ross brings more power to the party than England's Dan Cole, who had Woodcock in considerable bother at Twickenham last Saturday.

Devin Toner appears certain to come into the second-row which represents a huge opportunity for the Leinster leviathan and, if we assume John Muldoon's release to Connacht for tonight's Samoa match precludes his involvement four days later, then Donncha O'Callaghan could be retained in the second-row, with Donnacha Ryan in Muldoon's position of blindside wing-forward.

That would mean a front five of Court, Cronin and Hayes in the front row, with O'Callaghan and Toner a row behind. After that, it gets more complicated.


A back row of Ryan and Sean O'Brien on the flanks with Denis Leamy at No 8 would be a logical selection if Kidney decides to give Saturday's starting trio of Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip a rest before the All Blacks.

Or he might want to start some of that trio for 50 or 60 minutes to get them battle-hardened for the following weekend. Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara have the momentum at half-back and, based on the giving-Saturday's-bench-a-run policy, will start against Samoa. The likes of Paddy Wallace and Keith Earls could also come into the equation, along with Andrew Trimble.

There are plenty of options to come in out wide but, after Saturday's washout in terms of back-line play, there is also an argument in favour of giving some of the same players a chance to flex their attacking muscles and get their off-loading game going before the monumental examination the following weekend.

Whoever Kidney opts for, it will be an intriguing selection and nowhere more than in the front five. As it stands, O'Callaghan is the only member of last weekend's unit who you would say is certain to start against New Zealand.

For Court, Cronin and Toner, the Samoa Test is their 'X Factor' audition. For Hayes, it would be another cap to add to his staggering contribution to Irish rugby but an opportunity lost for Kidney and Ross.

Ireland (v Samoa, possible) -- L Fitzgerald; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, P Wallace, A Trimble, R O'Gara, P Stringer; T Court, S Cronin, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, T Doner, D Leamy, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Irish Independent

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