Saturday 16 December 2017

Earls must hit top gear to force kidney's hand

It probably says something about our current status in Celtic and European rugby, but when we get less than a 75pc return from our four professional teams on any given weekend, there is a distinct air of disappointment. The fact that two of those teams were playing against each other is almost irrelevant.

For Ulster and Connacht, it was a hugely disappointing addition to the losing European experience of the fortnight before (Connacht in Italy, Ulster in France).

At least Brian McLaughlin's men returned from Murrayfield with a bonus point for their evening's work. Alas, for Eric Elwood and Connacht, no such luck.

They deserved better despite coming second to a fired-up Leinster -- who dominated possession on the way to a fourth victory on the bounce. Make no mistake, the Joe Schmidt era is well and truly up and running.

For Munster, too, it made for a fruitful Friday with a five-tries-to-one demolition of under-strength Treviso.

You can only put away the opposition as it is presented and that they did convincingly. But though clearly pleased, Tony McGahan won't yet be doing cartwheels between Limerick and Cork as there is still a bit to go in attacking and creative terms before the province hit the level to which they aspire.

Still, winning consistently is a vital step along the way and with each passing match comes a growing level of conviction and collective self-belief. For a team still without the totemic Paul O'Connell, topping the Magners League (by four) and leading a Heineken Cup 'pool of death' without yet hitting their stride, is a pretty good place to be.


They won pulling up, dominating all the key areas and, once again, in Ronan O'Gara, they had the main man pulling the right strings at all the right times.

Jonny Sexton will start the Autumn Series in pole position for Ireland but the in-form, ultra-consistent O'Gara can do little more to advance his case for selection at this point in time. Would Declan Kidney want it any other way other than to have a comparable level of rivalry in every other position?

But the subtext to last Friday's one-sided romp is in the five try scorers. Keith Earls took his try-scoring opportunity as you would expect, but I still remain to be convinced he is back to full match sharpness.

Expect Kidney to monitor Earls' progress closely in training at Plassey over the coming days. If he or Luke Fitzgerald (whose injury may not be as serious as first thought) train to maximum intensity, I suspect one or the other will be selected on the left wing to face the Springboks.

If all are fit and available, on current form it would be Fitzgerald, Andrew Trimble and Earls in that order.

When Earls is fit and firing on all cylinders he would be in my match-day squad every time but, as of now, I still feel he is, of necessity, holding back. Against that, the Treviso run-out provided the opportunity for David Wallace to cut loose. He was a worthy man of the match.

The level of his performance over the course of the 80 minutes has thrown down the gauntlet to Kidney in what I believe should be a straight call between Wallace the incumbent and Sean O'Brien.

To be fair, it is a lot easier playing in a rolling Munster eight at Thomond against Treviso than in the heat of an inter-provincial dogfight at the Sportsground.

Once again, it is the type of difficult selection call any head coach worth his salt should relish and Kidney undoubtedly will. As of now, O'Brien continues to be marginally ahead, but I have no issue either way.

Much will depend on the balance and game plan Kidney hopes to adopt. Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip are bankers, leaving it a straight call between O'Brien and Wallace for an Irish back-row born for the guaranteed physicality the South Africans will bring.

At hooker, Rory Best will start with either Sean Cronin or Damian Varley -- pending Jerry Flannery's calf strain -- in waiting. When you factor in the Fogarty brothers, John and Denis, plus Mike Sherry (son of former international Mick), it sees Irish rugby well serviced in a position in which we have always been strong.

From Karl Mullen through Ronnie Dawson and Ciaran Fitzgerald to Keith Wood, I don't know of any position in which we have been consistently stronger over the years. As of now, bearing in mind Flannery's lack of game time, it appears Best, Cronin and Varley for the No 2 shirt in that order.

The other positive comes in the shape of James Coughlan. What I like about the Dolphin man is the understated element to his game. It is not unlike that of Anthony Foley, or indeed Heaslip, in terms of inherent honesty. You can tell by his demeanour that scoring tries (two in the last two outings for Munster) are almost an embarrassment. He is most at ease getting down and dirty in eking out hard yards. He is clearly made of the right Munster stuff.

With both Munster and Leinster finishing the month of October on a high, it means the Irish contingent report for international duty with confidence high. It is an element to the build-up not to be understated. It provides Kidney with a positive springboard for the November campaign.

Irish Independent

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