Bullish Kidney puts faith in familiar faces to end 107-year All Blacks hoodoo
"IT's a bit sadistic but you couldn't wish for anything else. This is Ireland's only tour to New Zealand for the next 12 years so you have to seize the opportunity."
Fighting talk from Ireland coach Declan Kidney as he reflected on the enormity of the challenge facing Ireland next month. Any Test against New Zealand is a big ask for a country that has never recorded a victory in this fixture in 107 years of trying, but three back-to-back internationals at the end of an 11-month season, on the All Blacks' home territory, in their first series since being crowned world champions? Novena time.
The list of names read out by Kidney at yesterday's squad announcement contained the core of the group that went to the World Cup and toiled through the Six Nations. Unlike England, who instigated a complete overhaul after exiting at the same quarter-final stage as Ireland, Kidney, without access to the same player pool, has kept faith with his established names.
Injury updates, Leinster's Pro12 final against the Ospreys on Sunday and Ireland's warm-up clash with the Barbarians the following Tuesday could see the squad altered further but, essentially, this is the latest chance for the players who came up short in the World Cup and Six Nations to try to turn provincial progress into national achievement.
On that basis, it was no surprise to see Leinster dominating the 25 players named yesterday with 11 representatives, but interesting to note that Munster (8) have more included than Ulster (6) despite a less productive season -- although this could change when the 'AN OTHER' positions are filled.
Those four vacant slots could see Connacht feature also, with Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney and Mike McCarthy in the mix to come in if needed.
The doubts over Paul O'Connell add to the enormity of the assignment but Kidney was delighted to welcome Brian O'Driscoll back and immediately reinstate him as captain.
"Brian O'Driscoll will captain the tour, that is the best answer I can give to how I feel about him being back," said Kidney. "He leads by example and the biggest compliment I can pay him is that he won't ask any player to do something he is not prepared to do himself."
Forwards coach Gert Smal was another returning to the fold after the illness which affected his Six Nations, and the South African, looking fit and well, is relishing a shot at the best team in the world. "There are things we can fix up from the Six Nations but it is going to be tough. Some see it as fear, I call it opportunity," he said.
So, Ireland are backing themselves to put it up to the world champions but before that first Test rolls around on June 9, there are a few questions to be answered with yesterday's squad.
What's the story with the 'AN OTHERs'?
Four slots have been left free, three in the forwards, one in the backs, with the hope of filling them with Tom Court, O'Connell, Chris Henry and Isaac Boss.
Paul O'Connell -- Still in a knee brace which is not due to come off until Thursday. Kidney remains optimistic his totemic second-row will be fit to travel and even to play in the first Test, rating his chances as on "the upper side of 50-50" but O'Connell remains a major concern. If he fails to recover, it looks like a shootout between Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy as Leo Cullen is not likely to be asked to travel given the arduous nature of the series.
Tom Court -- Fractured his thumb in the Heineken Cup final and, with an expected recovery period of six weeks, very unlikely to make it. Brett Wilkinson is the nominated replacement with Connacht team-mate Ronan Loughney next up.
Chris Henry -- Battered after his efforts in Twickenham but is expected to make it. If he is ruled out, Shane Jennings, a specialist openside, would be favourite to replace him, although Kevin McLaughlin could be considered if it is felt that Peter O'Mahony provides sufficient cover at No 7.
Isaac Boss -- Ruled out of Saturday's final but the Leinster scrum-half should be fine.
Who is covering Sexton and O'Gara at out-half?
No one, as it stands. Once it was decided not to bring Paddy Wallace, Ian Madigan became the most glaring omission but Kidney said that, much as he would have liked to, it wasn't feasible to bring three players in every position. There's no guarantee he would have made it in any case, with Kidney referencing Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley along with Madigan, whom he admitted was "playing very well".
The Ireland coach hinted that Jackson could be called up from the U-20 World Cup if something happened to one of his top two No 10s, just as Rhys Ruddock was two years ago.
Who were the loyalty calls?
Donncha O'Callaghan has struggled for his best form and starting place on the Munster side this season. However, his vast experience always gave him the edge over Toner or McCarthy and he will be relishing the opportunity to round off a rough campaign on a positive note.
Andrew Trimble has had a mixed time of it of late but Kidney will recall his excellent displays in New Zealand in 2010 and values the Ulster wing's physicality.
How significant a role do the world rankings play?
As Kidney put it yesterday, Ireland have "nothing to lose but massive gain" when it comes to the rankings. The gap between eighth-placed Ireland and the top-ranked All Blacks means that if Ireland manage a first win over New Zealand they will shoot up the order, while the effects of defeat will be negligible.
What is Kidney's likely team for the first Test?
You could take a pretty good stab at it now and it will be similar to their World Cup first XV. Rob Kearney at full-back; Fergus McFadden or Trimble on the right wing for the injured Tommy Bowe, with Keith Earls back in the 11 jersey; O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in midfield, Sexton and Eoin Reddan as half-backs; Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross filling the front-row; Donnacha Ryan and Paul O'Connell (if fit, Dan Tuohy or O'Callaghan if not) in the second-row and a back-row of Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
Is it a squad the All Blacks will fear?
No. They will issue the acceptable levels of respect for what has been achieved in the Heineken Cup but the truth is, they cannot contemplate losing to the Irish. As former All Blacks scrum-half Justin Marshall put it this week: "I'm not quaking in my boots, very rarely have I seen club form translate into Test form when it comes to Ireland."
Does the Heineken Cup success increase the pressure on Kidney?
Undoubtedly. The 'lost in translation' process between the provinces (primarily Leinster) and Ireland has been the source of much debate, and if Ireland fail to perform, the heat will be on.
Kidney does not see it that way but acknowledged the need to infuse the national side with Leinster's winning confidence.
"It is brilliant that they (the provinces) are winning and it becomes a habit that we need to bring forward," he said. "The players are incredibly honest, they don't pick and choose matches, they have to get up for the challenge and perform at an even higher level."
What would constitute an acceptable tour?
Kidney bravely declared that Ireland's intention is "to win the series and work downwards from there" but the reality is that putting it up to the All Blacks while playing some decent rugby would constitute a worthy return. A first victory over New Zealand would immediately place the tour in credit but the odds are piled high against it.
Ireland's bullishness and belief are commendable but, for now, it is just talk.