Saturday 18 November 2017

Earls faces toughtest as versatility could prove to be a curse

With just 80 minutes of warm-up time left, Irish supporters are still in the dark. Declan Kidney may well know whether or not he has a fully-fit squad at his disposal, but the 45,000 who will turn up at the Aviva Stadium are by no means sure.

To compound the problem, key players we thought were fit are not and questions remain about the untested ones. It is hardly what the coach envisaged two months ago.

It is hard to know where to start in looking at this afternoon's contest. One certainty is that the result, once deemed so critical, has lessened in importance.

Paul O'Connell, who makes the most sensible pre-match comments of any Irish captain since Tom Kiernan, said yesterday that, while he hoped to come out on the right side of the scoreboard, the World Cup campaign remained unchanged. It is hard to argue with that kind of common sense.

David Wallace will be the focus of attention on the pitch. As the only openside flanker in the Ireland party, it is absolutely vital that he gets through whatever portion of the game -- one imagines 60 minutes -- that Kidney has already decided for him. Failure to finish the allotted time would be catastrophic for the team's chances against Australia.

Two other players face a big day. At full-back, Geordan Murphy may well be playing for a starting slot against Australia -- a prospect no doubt beyond his wildest dreams a fortnight ago.

To win the defining match of the pool, Ireland need to be able to attack from the back against an Australian side that will keep the ball in hand. Rob Kearney, so effective in the air, is at his weakest when going forward with passing options available.

An Irish back three of Murphy, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble would merit a mention in the Robbie Deans pre-match team-talk.

If Kearney were selected, the Wallabies would not feed him a diet of high balls to make him look good. Interestingly, were Ireland to finish second in the pool and face a quarter-final against South Africa, then Kearney would be the obvious choice against a team that has little innovation outside of kick and chase.

Keith Earls is now the hermaphrodite of the Irish backline. He does not know whether he is full-back, wing or centre. His versatility, instead of being an advantage, is a curse.

Today, at outside centre, he is almost certain to butcher the opportunity to put people outside in space or, worse still, over the line.

It is his biggest weakness and the reason he should play on the wing and nowhere else. At least he is on the plane, unlike Luke Fitzgerald, who has similarly been done no favours at selection time.

Fitzgerald and Earls could look with profit at the career of Andrew Trimble. First capped at centre, without the necessary skills, he too oscillated between wing and midfield.

His nadir was in Paris in the last World Cup, when his lack of experience was exposed for a try against France.

With the assistance of good coaching and selection at Ulster, he consistently played on the wing, learned his trade and he now goes to New Zealand as Ireland's number one wing, leaving the previous certain starter Bowe to fight it out with Earls for the other spot.

Meanwhile, two of the squad's best players are nursing injuries.

Brian O'Driscoll is by far the most serious worry, when one considers that just a couple of weeks ago he was in a neck brace and now has an injured shoulder, casually described as a 'stinger'.

This is no prick of a dying hymenoptera -- wasp or bee to me and you -- but damage to the nerves of the shoulder. How much damage must the captain sustain in the service of his country?

Sean O'Brien's knee is, of course, a concern, but there are options in Stephen Ferris, Donnacha Ryan and, in extremis, Denis Leamy. But the midfield cupboard is bare -- as this afternoon will assuredly show.


Elsewhere, Martin Johnson has picked a team whose DNA is that of Clive Woodward's winning formula eight years ago; a massive pack backed up by Jonny Wilkinson's boot at fly-half. The experiment of running rugby orchestrated by Toby Flood has now been abandoned and the team will play in the boring and efficient manner beloved of their coach.

The centre partnership of Mike Tindall and Manu Tuilagi will ensure plenty of collisions in midfield and test the resolution of Earls and Gordan D'Arcy and, even if fit, you would not have exposed O'Driscoll to that risk.

This is an ideal final test for the Irish team. The line-out and scrum will get a serious workout, there will be no quarter asked or given in the close exchanges, and Ronan O'Gara will have the perfect opportunity to show why Ireland need a game manager for the real tests ahead. Who could ask for anything more?

It will be hard to ignore the score in this match against the 'old enemy', but there are bigger fish to fry next month and more important information to be gained on and off the pitch. I will be watching with my rosary beads.

Irish Independent

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