Monday 19 February 2018

Hugh Farrelly: All black battles to reveal true mettle of kidney's motley crew

Paul O'Connell
Paul O'Connell

Hugh Farrelly

SO, with the exception of the decision on Paul O'Connell, the squad to tour New Zealand has been finalised and it is a fairly motley crew of totems, tyros, late-bloomers and lob-ins.

It is safe to assume that the All Blacks, or any of their supporters, will not exactly be quailing at the prospect of taking on this group -- although there are very few international squads that would cause the world champions to fret ahead of a home Test series.

They will undoubtedly acknowledge beacons of quality like Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien but will know very little about the majority of names, and care less.

Given the injury problems he has had to cope with, and the continuing issue of finding sufficient game-time for Irish hopefuls, the Ireland coach has done as well as could be expected in bringing this group together.

The complexity of the problem is emphasised by the problems at prop. The search for quality back-up to Cian Healy and Mike Ross has seen Kidney turn to three uncapped players -- Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney and Declan Fitzpatrick -- with little Heineken Cup exposure.

The ideal situation for Kidney would be to have access to props starting regularly in big Heineken Cup matches.

Instead, he is faced with a situation where Munster's first-choice props are the South African duo of Wian Du Preez and BJ Botha while Ulster harbour the world-class All Black John Afoa at tight-head who, as if to emphasise Irish rugby's most pressing problem, gave Wilkinson a thorough grilling when playing for the Barbarians against Ireland on Tuesday night.

The national side is also labouring under the constant, unfavourable comparisons with the provinces, who provided the two Heineken Cup finalists this year and, in Leinster's case, played a brand of rugby that proved the envy of Europe.

The Ireland coach is well versed in the provincial requirements from his two stints with Munster and one with Leinster and one of the greatest challenges he has faced since taking over the national side is adjusting to not having regular access to his players.

However, in this Kidney is no different to any national coach and the key now is to turn limited preparation into consistent performance, as Warren Gatland has managed with Wales and Kidney himself did in 2009.

One of the regular criticisms of the Ireland coach is that he is too conservative in his selections but, when you accept the mitigating factors that influenced this pick, it is worth noting that this squad includes no less than six uncapped players, while Kidney also made a point of highlighting the constant evolution of his squad since 2009.

"If you look at the squad, there are 11 changes since the World Cup," he said. "Some selection, some of it enforced due to injuries. That is the cycle that changes.

"We knew when we won the (Grand) Slam that we had to change that and of the side that played against Wales in 2009, two thirds have changed.

"I have put sides together before and I know what it takes to put them together. This is the best type of tour to go on to find out exactly where you are."

discovery

That could turn out to be a surprisingly encouraging discovery or a wholly demoralising one. The reality is you have the eighth-placed side in the world taking on the world champions on their own patch -- three times. It could get very ugly.

However, Ireland's coach is relishing the opportunity to go up against the best and a glimmer of hope lies in the fact that these seemingly massive challenges are the ones that have brought out the best in Kidney through his career.

"It's brilliant. We have three matches against New Zealand and, at the moment, after this tour there are only six matches against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand between now and the next World Cup.

"You need to be playing those teams. In provincial land if you said you only play six Heineken Cup matches in three years you'd be worried where your rugby would go. We will look to play these guys as often as possible. Is it daunting? It's a pity we're not playing them four times."

Irish Independent

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