Monday 18 December 2017

Brendan Fanning: Conservative Kidney running out of props

New Zealand 42 Ireland 10
Injured Healy left on too long . . . now we have only one fit tighthead, writes Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If defeat for Ireland was a near certainty in your preview of yesterday's events at Eden Park, then defeat with casualties was coming in at the same price.

Not long after the final whistle in Auckland, Declan Kidney was on the phone to alert two men who a month ago would never have considered being contacted by the national coach. It's possible that neither Ulster's Paddy McAllister nor Sale's Tony Buckley will be asked to call a taxi for the airport, but at Kidney's request they already have their bags packed.

The prop situation currently is this: Cian Healy stayed on longer than was wise and his shoulder is a cause of serious concern. It was a managerial mistake to leave him on when clearly he was banjaxed, and the game long gone. The mistake was prompted by a reluctance, we suspect, to give in to the idea of uncontested scrums -- a development that was inevitable because Declan Fitzpatrick had already gone off with a hamstring injury.

Mike Ross is similarly troubled and last week's setback to his recovery is, well, a setback. So, of the three tightheads here, Ronan Loughney is the only one currently fit, and on the other side there is Brett Wilkinson who was not in the 22 yesterday.

There may be more phone calls home before the tour is out, though it's unlikely that there will be more casualties in training for there will be just two pitch sessions this week. And beating the lard out of each other is not part of the plan. It will be enough that the All Blacks are already fixed on upping the dose for the tourists.

Before we even look at that though, go back through the list of names on the propping roster, or likely to fill it. And then consider the need to get more Ireland-qualified players into first-choice positions in the provincial teams. It was scary to think that Fitzpatrick was lining up for the anthems last night.

In the last three seasons, with either BJ Botha or John Afoa at Ravenhill, he has started four Heineken Cup games. He is not geared for 80 minutes against anybody, let alone a Test debut in Eden Park. His opposite number, Tony Woodcock, is the most capped All Black prop and has played in three World Cups.

Traumatic tours to this part of the world always prompt some introspection when we get back. When the stats are totted up in Hamilton in a fortnight it will give impetus to the shift towards a reduction in non-Ireland qualified players in the provinces, especially in the front row.

First though, Declan Kidney has to manage the group over those next two hurdles. There won't be any more talk of this three-Test series being a wonderful opportunity, and it will require mental fortitude on a grand scale.

"It will do, yeah, but we have a responsibility to the jersey to represent it as best we can and that's not old soldier stuff," Kidney said. "That's what we have to do and sometimes in life you have to do that. There's nothing for us in thinking (negatively) like that. We have a match next Saturday and, come hell or high water, we'll get ourselves ready for that then."

Oddly enough, the coach has a couple of selection dilemmas to contend with. If he turns around and tells Andrew Trimble that he's surplus to requirements again you'd fear for the reaction, yet Simon Zebo looked like he would benefit from every second spent on the field here. Also Eoin Reddan will want to know why he is not starting ahead of Conor Murray. Kidney might respond that Reddan's form was not that hot for Leinster towards the end of the season, but that would only push him closer to Paul Marshall which is a direction that doesn't appeal to him.

Who to select is almost a sideshow however. What will he learn from the video analysis that can improve their game? His audience is physically and mentally tired and Kidney is well past the point in his tenure with this group where he can pull off a brain-shaping miracle.

The pressure mounts when you peep over the other side of the fence. It was unsettling to hear the New Zealand camp bemoaning the amount of ball Ireland managed to slow on them here in Auckland, and it reminded you of 2002 when, after a very competitive first Test in Dunedin, Ireland -- and Keith Gleeson in particular -- were blown out of it in Eden Park a week later.

"At the breakdown we were doing a lot of ball-watching rather than identifying people to move," new coach Steve Hansen said afterwards. "Then we have to be a step ahead and think right, this is a game of chess isn't it? They're going to counter us here so what can we do to take advantage of that?"

It might be a game of chess for the ABs but it's dodgeball for Ireland. They won't be opening any new holes in the home defence in Christchurch. By the time they line up for that one on Saturday, the temperature will be far in excess of anything a meteorologist might measure.

The scheduling of this Test wasn't accidental: in the unlikely event of Ireland having derailed the new world champions it would put the train back on track; and if not then it would be full steam ahead with the homecoming to a city that lost out on the show last autumn and is aching to play its part.

"How will we deal with it?" asks Hansen. "We'll do what we always do and prepare well. The Christchurch people and the people who come to that Test match will demand a performance. And our expectations have to be higher than theirs. So if we go there and perform really well a lot of people will go away happy. And that's all we've got control of. Yes, it'll be emotional for a lot of people in Christchurch and it'll be emotional for the team, but all we can control is what we do from Sunday to Friday and then we use that to make sure we control the performance on the Saturday.

"It's a game and performance we want to be proud of. The lucky thing about this team is that there's enough talent in it that when it performs well it gives itself a good opportunity to win the game."

Ireland have played a lot worse than yesterday and done better. They were doing a decent job of staying close but for three penalty decisions on the trot that scuppered their plan of keeping the Kiwis in sight.

"Their nine points was quite soft really and that's what I want to get across to the lads," Kidney says. "That's where I see it as being in our control to do that (stay close to them). That's what Brian (O'Driscoll) was alluding to. The mistakes might be small ones but they cost you points each time."

Nobody is better at extracting full measure than the All Blacks. Welcome to New Zealand folks.

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