Ireland must show their true worth
IT has been a week of Barack Obama references and none more tenuous than yesterday's statement by the British Transport Police.
"The election of Obama to the White House has turned a page in history -- now it's time for football fans to do the same," said Supt Colum Price, adding that he hoped the "new sense of optimism" would help prevent trouble at Stoke v Wigan and Plymouth v Charlton.
Whether musing on the US president-elect can stop rival fans from glassing each other remains to be seen, but the references this week to Declan Kidney bringing Obama-like change to Irish rugby were far more predictable.
Playing the 15th-ranked team in the world at a potentially undersold stadium in the driving wind and rain would not immediately suggest itself as 'a brave new dawn' but it does present Kidney with the perfect opportunity for a convincing start to his tenure.
"What's important is that we win, if that's 3-0, then that's 3-0," said the Ireland coach yesterday, in classic style. Victory is indeed paramount on a world-rankings basis and playing down expectations is always the safest route to take. However, the reality is that if Ireland do not manage a comprehensive victory against a team containing amateur players from clubs such as the Velox Valhallians and Castaway Wanderers, the critics will be out in force.
While the clash with Canada was delightfully described as a "banana skin" by RTE's Jacqui Hurley on the 'Seoige' show yesterday (on the basis of Ireland's World Cup frights against Namibia and Georgia), the home team should expect to be six on seven tries better than a side that were less-than-convincing winners over Portugal last weekend.
The weather's expansion-denying qualities could be a factor in keeping the score down and, in James Pritchard, Canada have a goal-kicker of considerable renown but, unless the Irish players abandon their club form entirely, it is impossible to envisage a slip-up.
"The weather is the same for both sides," reckoned Kidney. "In the conditions, it gives defence an upper hand. It's like having an extra man in defence, because it makes it more difficult to attack. Ball handling becomes more precarious, you have to give a half step running on to the ball, so you deepen your attacking line by half a step.
"The defensive line can come that half step more forward, and catch you in behind the gain line unless you're very sharp, so that's what the weather does. It can make attack more of a challenge."
Debutant Keith Earls has been under the microscope this week, but neither Kidney nor Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll harbour any concerns about the 21-year-old's ability to cope with the pressure.
"He's the same as he always is, and he's a very well-grounded young man," said Kidney.
O'Driscoll, nine years on from his first cap against Australia, has been equally impressed by Earls' calm.
"He's acting like a 50-cap veteran, there's no need to worry about him. He's a really calm, nice young fella. He seems to take everything in his stride. I'm sure there's an underlying emotion there, but he's taken it all in. He'll play his own game, and thoroughly enjoy it."
Earls' last game at full-back was also in Thomond, on a wet and windy night against Montauban in the Heineken Cup when Munster were very nearly undone. Earls had a couple of ropey moments under the high ball on that occasion and if Canada coach Kieran Crowley has done his homework, he will have his resolve tested with a few early bombs.
In this regard, having Rob Kearney on the left wing is comforting and though the management have stressed that there is no set interchange plan in place, the Leinster man's superb fielding skills should be employed regularly.
While it is a massive occasion for Earls, there are several others desperate to make a statement a week ahead of the meeting with New Zealand in Croke Park. Luke Fitzgerald has four caps for Ireland but only one start, and will want to nail down a regular berth in the starting 15 with a big game alongside O'Driscoll, while this is also a tremendous opportunity for flankers Stephen Ferris and Shane Jennings.
Ferris is a startling physical specimen who plays a direct, no-nonsense brand of rugby and could cause havoc against today's opponents, to the point where he is then favourite for the blindside role against the All Blacks. Alan Quinlan's form has been superb over the past couple of seasons but he has had to endure periods out with injury and will hope for the time to make a decent impression. Kidney has kept two flankers on the bench, Quinlan and Wallace, with Quinlan acting as second-row cover and Ryan Caldwell dropping out.
"We think there will be a lot of activity around the breakdown, so (we need) an extra few loose forwards, and we have enough cover in the second row to feel we can slot them in if needs be," explained Kidney.
That reasoning is plausible but it also affords him the opportunity to assess Ferris and Jennings first, then Quinlan and Wallace, before deciding who should face Richie McCaw and company next weekend.
Jennings is enjoying his regular starts at open side for Leinster this season and is a different type of seven to Wallace (who has been playing number eight at Munster). If Jennings can produce a big game at the breakdown against Canada, it will strengthen his claim for a shot at McCaw.
Tight-head prop Tony Buckley will be looking for a display to re-establish his credentials after a difficult season where he has been battling illness, and he faces a solid opponent in the shape of Glasgow Warriors' Kevin Tkachuk.
The other areas of the team are well set, although hooker Jerry Flannery will look for a solid lineout performance to ward off the claims of Ulster's Rory Best.
And it is time for the lineout, once so accomplished, to click again. Forwards coach Gert Smal has a big reputation from his time with the World Cup-winning Springboks and has made a considerable impact on his new charges in the short time he has had to work with them. However, the giant South African will ultimately be judged on the effectiveness of the Irish set-pieces.
Despite the weather, we should see out-half Ronan O'Gara look to bring an attack-minded backline into play and, with the Canadians likely to fade in the second period, there is potential for plenty of tries.
There are still tickets available at the ground from 12.30 today at the west side of the stadium and one hopes they are snapped up for the occasion which, while hardly Obama-like, could be memorable.
Hopefully there will be no more presidential references, a change is as good as a rest, after all.