Tony Ward: Earls forced to switch again as Kearney leaves gaping void
THE new faces who appear in the first international squad of the season are always the focus of attention, so there will be plenty of limelight shone upon loose-head prop David Kilcoyne, newly naturalised hooker Richardt Strauss and the young Ulster duo of utility forward Iain Henderson and centre Luke Marshall.
But the real issue and area of most concern surrounds full-back, with Rob Kearney laid low and Gavin Duffy also out of contention. The options in the last line of defence are worryingly low.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney acknowledged that Felix Jones will have the opportunity to put himself in the reckoning once he comes through Munster's Pro12 game against Zebre in Thomond Park tomorrow night.
However, it is a real concern that, as it stands, Keith Earls is the only recognised player in the squad capable of filling that slot.
Earls (right) has come to Kidney's rescue in the past and will do so again if needs be in the coming weeks.
Yet, how ironic that having declared his desire to new Munster head coach Rob Penney to be an out-and-out centre, as opposed to wing, it could well be in another position (full-back) that he finds himself when the Ireland XV runs out to face South Africa in little over a fortnight's time.
To add to this conundrum, the Limerick man -- whose stance on his centre aspirations I fully support -- is himself recovering from injury.
The signs are that he will be fully fit for November selection, but it seems unlikely that he will be picked in either of the positions (wing or centre) which he might have requested or reasonably expected.
Were Jones to be selected at full-back to face the Springboks, Earls could still edge Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble for a spot on the left flank but, as of now, he is the only one with the pedigree or experience (however limited) to play full-back in the 31-man squad.
Tommy Bowe was an outstanding No 15 in his youth at The Royal School Armagh and in his college time at Queen's University, Belfast, but to ask him to switch positions now is a non-starter.
Whether it is Jones or Earls (with Denis Hurley the only other credible alternative) in situ to face the South Africans, Ireland will have an undercooked full-back extremely short on game time in the position.
Kidney could add a prop or indeed another half-back (how about Paul Marshall and any one from Ian Madigan, Ian Keatley or Paddy Jackson?) but full-back is the area in need of most obvious attention.
The loss of Kearney is huge, and let no one pretend otherwise.
One can only hope that, in terms of injuries, the South Africa game will not impact too much on Kidney's selections to face Fiji and Argentina.
This is a squad that has been picked to finish the month still at No 8 in the IRB rankings, ahead of Scotland and the Pumas, thereby ensuring a second-pot seeding at the 2015 World Cup draw in early December.
Like almost everybody else, I too would like to see youth given its fling, but with the upcoming World Cup draw, for this autumn international series at least, needs must.
To that end Kidney has picked the most pragmatic selection, with very much in-form players like Chris Henry, John Muldoon and Mike McCarthy rightly on board.
Beyond that, the inclusion of Anthony Foley (as defence coach for the month) and Greg Feek as (double jobbing) scrummaging technician is to be welcomed -- I will return to that anon.
For now what we have is a seasoned squad picked to do a job.
However ugly it must be for that job to be done, few can argue the it's the present, rather than the future, which matters most in the next three internationals.
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