Tuesday 16 January 2018

Tony Ward: Bent call-up a no-brainer but Kidney still has a Kearney-size jersey to fill

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

IT may have only shared the weekend headline with Brian O'Driscoll's ankle twist at the RDS, but if ever the 'mere' announcement of a replacement pool caused a stir, it was the revelation by Declan Kidney of what we can only assume to be the next seven players in his pecking order.

The magnificent seven of Craig Gilroy, Tiernan O'Halloran, Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Declan Fitzpatrick, Michael Bent as well as the more seasoned Sean Cronin genuinely excites.

Hopefully, their involvement in the build-up to the South Africa game will be followed by their selection for the Irish XV to face the Fijians in Limerick seven days later.

Second-guessing the head coach is difficult at the best of times, and the delayed addition of a recognised full-back to the squad has me somewhat perplexed.

However, I do know that Kidney is at his wits' end over the lack of prop forwards coming through the front-row system, so the immediate promotion of Bent is more easily understood.

Now whether it is morally right is another issue about which (as with Richardt Strauss, albeit through different procedures) I have mixed feelings.

Kidney's simple and understandable defence is that it is his desire to select the best available squad for Ireland according to IRB law. In neither front-row forward's case has he, pardon the pun, 'bent' those rules.

Leinster signing Bent, a Hurricanes Super 15 prop, is the sort of strong-scrummaging, ball-carrying grafter we can only dream about at this time.

So, far from castigating the coach, we must acknowledge the common sense in Bent's selection, given the level the legally qualified 26-year-old is playing at.

My main issue is with the 'flag of convenience syndrome' as flown by former Wallaby Brian Smith back in the late 1980s, having previously represented the country of his birth at the highest level.

In Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross, we possess as honest and competitive a front-row as there is around; the problem, epitomised at Twickenham back in March, is and has long been the lack of back-up.

Now that is being addressed in the short term, allowing Colin McEntee room for manoeuvre in his new role as high-performance manager overseeing elite player development nationwide. The down-to-earth McEntee's appointment is one of the better decisions made by the IRFU in recent times.

Of Kidney's additional seven, I suspect that Bent alone will challenge for a place in the match-day squad to face the Boks.

Marshall should be in there, and and in time will surely force his way in.

But I suspect it will be Conor Murray ahead of Eoin Reddan, although my preference, based on form, would be for Redan to start, with Marshall pushing Murray strongly for a place on the bench.

Kidney and Co face an interesting call at openside as they ponder the back-row to take on the physical might of South Africa.

Essentially, it is Chris Henry's mobility measured against Peter O'Mahony's physicality and perhaps line-out menace.

But the real issue, and I'm not too sure it has fully hit home, is in the last line of defence, where Rob Kearney's eleventh-hour withdrawal is nigh on catastrophic.

I have no insider knowledge, but I suspect that Kidney was as surprised as any on learning of Kearney's need for an operation so close to the November series.

The lack of a full-back, with respect to the still-recovering Keith Earls, was the most glaring absence from the original 31-man man squad named.

On the assumption he is fit, Earls will clearly come into consideration for the type of fill-in role he has performed in the past.

Tommy Bowe is another with similar credentials. The Ulster wing has only played full-back on sporadic occasions since leaving school, but would give it a real go if asked.

But despite only recovering from yet another long-term injury, the absence of Felix Jones from the additional group named by Kidney for preparatory training was a surprise.


One can only assume he will be under the microscope again when Munster travel to Cardiff on Friday. That would still leave six days to integrate into the squad before the head coach declares his opening hand on Thursday week.

In terms of risk -- ie, lack of game time when weighed against recent exposure to the full-back position -- I would rate the main protagonists in this order:

1 Jones (safety-first selection) -- The only natural full-back but short on game time.

2 Earls (moderate to medium risk) -- Short on game-time and recent exposure at No 15.

3 Bowe (outside punt but would not let the side down) -- Aside from Ulster's trip to the Dragons last Friday and the very odd appearance for the Ospreys (before he moved back to his home province), he has been long removed from a position in which he excelled in his youth.

4 Ian Madigan/Ian Keatley (very long-range punt) -- Both have looked the business for their respective provinces at full-back but selection to face the Boks in the still largely unfamiliar role would represent a demand too far.

5Simon Zebo (extremely long-range punt) -- A dazzling wing talent but has negligible experience at No 15 and would have to learn a new position remarkably quickly.

Needless to say, the first name called out by Kidney at the team announcement will be the one of greatest interest. But despite his lack of match practice, and his non-inclusion in the squad, Jones would still be the one for me.

Irish Independent

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