Tuesday 16 January 2018

Tony Ward: Crunch weekend as Kidney weighs up his options

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

By tomorrow evening we will already be a third of the way through the Heineken Cup group phase, which means that the autumn internationals are suddenly all but upon us.

When Brian O'Driscoll (fitness permitting) leads out the Irish side to face the Springboks, it will be close on five months since that nightmare night in Hamilton which was an embarrassment for all concerned.

It's one thing to lose a match or series to the All Blacks -- we have been doing that since time immemorial -- but what transpired in Waikato was abject surrender, and a major blot on the record of the 22 players called into action on that best-forgotten night.

If any one of those involved fails to see it as such, then he should call a halt now.

The beauty of international sport is the opportunity of pitting yourself against the very best at the very highest level, but when a team loses the final match of a series in either June, November or the Six Nations, the opportunity for redemption can seem a long way away.

Those 'survivors' from the Waikato whitewash should be champing at the bit to regain some respectability after an nine-try, 60-0 thrashing which makes losing 6-1 at home to the Germans in a soccer international seem almost respectable.

If Ireland produce another downbeat performance against the Boks, it won't just be the FAI who will be worried about putting bums on Lansdowne Road seats when the Pumas arrive for the third November Test of three -- Fiji in Limerick being the Wolfhounds' blow-out in between.

The nature of the coaching job demands a positive November return.

But what does that mean? It would normally equate to a minimum two wins from three, but after what transpired in the Land of the Long White Cloud, Declan Kidney probably needs three wins -- a huge ask given the ugly, uncompromising modus operandi of the opposition.

Kidney knows the score better than any. Factor in the proximity of the 2015 World Cup draw -- based on IRB rankings -- and it's clear that Ireland need wins.

Put simply, Kidney must field his best available, most experienced, in-form side in the two Dublin games.

In the search for emerging talent (and planning ahead to the Six Nations) the Fijian game squeezed in between must be used to give youth its fling in a balanced Limerick selection.

There are still three weeks to get Rob Kearney, Gordon D'Arcy and Paul O'Connell the requisite game time. As things stand, of the team that ran the world champions so close in Christchurch (where a draw was the least they deserved), only Sean O'Brien is ruled out. His loss is massive, as Leinster can testify. His protracted absence -- four months now -- begs the question, should he have been in New Zealand in the first place?

Keith Earls and Kearney are also doubts, while Paddy Wallace and Dan Tuohy, despite Ulster's encouraging form, will struggle for differing reasons to gain inclusion.

Wallace will surely be overlooked given his experiences against Sonny Bill Williams in Hamilton (unfair given the circumstances, but a harsh fact nonetheless).

And Tuohy will probably miss out because of the significant return of O'Connell to partner Donnacha Ryan -- who was Ireland's most consistent player on tour and surely now a first-up second-row selection alongside O'Connell.

Against that will be the likely return of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble (in the absence of Earls) to the right and left wings respectively, although Simon Zebo looks good to go at this level again. I would pick the Munster man because of the naturally left-sided balance he brings to that side of the field.

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has brought D'Arcy back from injury to partner O'Driscoll in midfield against the Scarlets today, with Fergus McFadden moving out to the wing, and Kidney could also opt for D'Arcy's experience.

The return of Stephen Ferris will compensate to a large degree for O'Brien's absence, while Jamie Heaslip (another to miss the Hamilton debacle) will be back at No 8, leaving it between Kevin McLaughlin, Chris Henry, the in-form Shane Jennings and the versatile Peter O'Mahony for the remaining back-row slot.

Challenge

The other issue is scrum-half, where Conor Murray needs to up the ante dramatically tomorrow and over the next few weeks if he is to challenge Eoin Reddan, who is surely in pole position to face Ruan Pienaar and the Boks. I would include Paul Marshall in the match-day 22 for that game, but I expect it will be Reddan plus either the recovering Isaac Boss or the out-of-sorts Murray.

I hope Marshall and the promising Kieran Marmion will be in the mix (along with most of the exciting Connacht backline) to face Fiji.

This weekend is crucial in the context of November selection, although the next two Pro12 rounds will be important, with Kearney, Earls, O'Connell, D'Arcy and O'Mahony all in need of game time. If Kearney is in trouble, Felix Jones could well come into the mix, but he too needs time.

If everyone is fit, I would expect Kidney to be thinking along the following lines:

IRELAND -- R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ulster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster); D Ryan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), P O'Mahony (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Irish Independent

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