Monday 20 November 2017

Kearney must make statement of intent

Four years ago this month, we got the first inklings that all was not well with Eddie O'Sullivan's preparations for the Rugby World Cup in France.

The nation felt that the golden generation of Irish rugby players had a real chance of lifting the trophy, but it was all to end in tears with even lowly Georgia and Namibia running Ireland close.

My abiding memory of the disaster was Brian O'Driscoll screaming abuse at Peter Stringer after the scrum-half's wayward pass had given an intercept try to the underdogs from Africa.

At that moment, we knew that this was not a team united in a desire to lift the trophy.

The rumours from inside the camp, the dreadful hotels and poor selection policy were peripheral to the failure to prepare properly for the biggest event in the rugby calendar.

Declan Kidney is unlikely to make the same mistakes as his predecessor, but the next 400 minutes of international rugby will decide Ireland's World Cup campaign for good or ill.

The coach already knows who he needs for his squad. The sole purpose of these games is to make his team "match ready" for the competition and determine whether his long-term injured can get back in time.

O'Sullivan correctly believed that, for Ireland to compete at the top level, they had to have all of the top players fit at the same time. In that regard, the selection of Rob Kearney and Jerry Flannery is significant.

The full-back has two problems; firstly to prove that he is fit, but secondly and more importantly that he is good enough.

Kearney plays like Tom Kiernan in 1970. He has good hands, is courageous and clears his lines effectively.

Unfortunately, the game has moved on and counter-attack from the back is a prerequisite.

Ireland need Geordan Murphy more than Kearney, who has to make a real statement of intent from the No 15 shirt today if he is to hold off the challenge of the Leicester man, who sadly has his own injury worries.

The quest for the Webb Ellis trophy could fail to take off if the team travel to New Zealand without a quality last line of defence.

It would be a 64-carat miracle if Jerry Flannery were to make the starting line-up in September. He will get about 20 minutes today, and, if he comes safely through that test, he will certainly be involved in most, if not all, of the remaining games.

It is hard to believe that he can overcome 18 months of inactivity in such a short time. We must hope that Ireland will have their best hooker on the field against Australia.

The Munster man's presence or absence could also have an important bearing on the line-out. It will be interesting to watch Sean Cronin trying to hit his jumpers against strong Scottish opposition in that area.

Winners in rugby union have always been determined by the power of the scrum and line-out. Today will give real pointers to the future of the team in September.

The selection today points to real problems for Kidney in New Zealand.

There are four prop forwards in the squad, none of whom are good enough for international rugby in general, and certainly not for Italy and South Africa in particular.

Tony Buckley and John Hayes, for differing reasons, should not be considered, and Marcus Horan and Tom Court are simply unable to scrummage against top-level opposition.

One may wonder why there's such emphasis on the scrum, which rarely numbers more than 12 occurrences a game. Crucially, the breakdown is 10 times the number of scrums, but the side with the stronger set-piece goes into the breakdown with the advantage.

The ball will be recycled about 120 times in the crucial games of the World Cup. If Jamie Heaslip cannot get off the back of the scrum, if the midfield backs cannot cross the advantage line, and if the support players cannot run with pace, then Ireland cannot win.

Every team with pretensions to advancement in the competition will come equipped with an openside flanker.

The favourites New Zealand know that Dan Carter and, above all, Richie McCaw hold the country's hopes in their hands.

In contrast, Ireland have just David Wallace to compete on the ground. It was, therefore, no surprise that the coach drafted Niall Ronan into the squad as cover for Wallace. The newcomer has a lot to play for today.

Despite all the chat about Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien, it is unlikely that they will be paired together in an Irish back-row for a vital game.

Similarly, Mike McCarthy and Kevin McLaughlin are simply more of the same: lock/blindsides of which Ireland have plenty.

Somewhere in Ireland there has to be a big strong centre, with pace, handling skills and strengths who could amass fame and fortune by converting to the back-row as an openside.

Today we will see the first steps towards the World Cup. Make no mistake, it will be very interesting.

Irish Independent

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