Thursday 18 January 2018

Experience key to Kidney tour plans

Hugh Farrelly

FROM jubilation and anticipation to trepidation, in less than 48 hours.

The all-Irish affirmation at Twickenham on Saturday was a massive shot in the arm for Irish rugby, with Leinster providing a launch pad for achievement and a template to follow.

It was heady stuff, even for Ulster who, once they put aside their disappointment at the manner with which they were ruthlessly taken apart, can reflect on an excellent season and a rise in the Irish pecking order.

That was then, today we address the incredibly daunting prospect of a three-Test assignment in New Zealand which has the capacity to immediately burst this Irish rugby bubble.

There is one more domestic match to go, when Leinster seek to wrap up the Cup-League double against Ospreys, as well as a run-out for a second-string Irish side against the Baa-Baas, but today's announcement of the group charged with taking on the world champions brings the challenge into sharp focus.

There have been concerted calls for a new departure after disappointing conclusions to the World Cup and Six Nations, a nod to the future by exposing up-and-coming talent to the realities of international rugby at the highest level.

However, do not expect Ireland coach Declan Kidney to bow to those calls and the squad named today is likely to contain the majority of the names who participated in those two unfulfilling competitions.

That means the likes of Donncha O'Callaghan, Gordon D'Arcy, Paddy Wallace and Tom Court continuing as Ireland squad regulars and, to be fair to Kidney, quality alternatives are not exactly dropping from the trees, while D'Arcy and Wallace, in particular, are form selections.

It means the only players traditionally referred to as 'bolters' in the squad will be by necessity rather than as an investment in the future and the ready justification for this approach is that New Zealand is not the place to be throwing young fellahs in, particularly when the All Blacks are bolstered by their world champion status.

Nonetheless, there would still be a powerful argument for bringing along the likes of Ian Madigan, Dave Kearney or Craig Gilroy as these are players who seem destined for the step up to international rugby and, even if they saw no action, it would be an invaluable tutorial in what is required.

Genuine

Madigan especially. Both Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara have to travel if Ireland are to harbour genuine intentions of an upset but Madigan's progress this season (including an excellent cameo in Saturday's final) has been a huge bonus -- made possible, lest we forget, by injury to the non-Irish qualified Mat Berquist, echoing Sexton's elevation after injury to Felipe Contepomi in 2009.

However, Wallace's excellent form means Kidney will probably feel there is no need to bring a third out-half which means the Munster hooker Mike Sherry could be the designated young, uncapped blood.

Declan Fitzpatrick has a good chance of making the party also as back-up to Mike Ross, although his only meaningful exposure came as a result of John Afoa's suspension, so the Ulster tight-head is short on game-time.

There is also the possibility of Ronan Loughney making the squad with some doubts over Tom Court, following Saturday's bruising experience and the possibility of a hand injury.

Kevin McLaughlin and Chris Henry deserve to travel also and back-row is an area where Ireland are particularly strong at present, even when measured against a unit as formidable as the All Blacks.

Leinster will provide the squad with a confident core and having Brian O'Driscoll back is hugely significant, although counterbalanced by the continuing worry over Paul O'Connell.

The Munster captain is likely to be named today with the proviso that a final decision will be taken next week and if O'Connell is ruled out of the touring party, the line-out prowess of Devin Toner could sneak him in ahead of Connacht's Mike McCarthy.

In terms of a brave new world, there may be few names today to set the pulses racing but still enough ability and belief to give Ireland a fighting chance in the toughest environment in world rugby.

IRELAND SQUAD TO TOUR NEW ZEALAND

(Possible) -- R Kearney, A Trimble, K Earls, F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, P Wallace, J Sexton, R O'Gara, E Reddan, C Murray, I Boss, C Healy, M Ross, T Court*, D Fitzpatrick, R Best, S Cronin, M Sherry, P O'Connell*, D Ryan, D Tuohy, D O'Callaghan, S Ferris, S O'Brien, J Heaslip, C Henry, K McLaughlin, P O'Mahony.

(* Subject to fitness)

Irish Independent

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