Tuesday 20 March 2018

Kidney's reluctant revolution

Ireland boss forced to ring changes as day of reckoning looms large, writes David Kelly

Ireland coach Declan Kidney. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Declan Kidney. Photo: Sportsfile

Team selection often reflects a coach's personality.

The one that Declan Kidney unveils this lunchtime will reflect a lot more than this.

It may just help to offer him a roadmap towards rescuing a regime that, in stark statistical terms, is regressing rapidly.

A precipitous decline since the Grand Slam heights of 2009, pockmarked all too occasionally by one-off statements of unsubstantiated intent like the World Cup defeat of Australia, leaves Kidney standing perilously close to the exit door.

Injuries and the loss of key leadership figures such as Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Rory Best, not to mention the crucial physical impacts of Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien, have forced his hand.

This week, against another leading world power -- notwithstanding the Springboks' own injury woes -- Kidney's hand has been violently forced.

That he is being obliged to make decisions opposed to his normal way of thinking could, ironically, afford him a giant leap of faith in terms of his wavering public support and his equally uncertain paymasters in Lansdowne Road.

A swathe of new blood will offer -- however illusory it may seem -- a tinge of revolution to what is potentially Kidney's last season at the helm.

Results will dictate whether he will remain beyond next summer to see the transition though.

South Africa remain odds-on favourites this Saturday; still, Kidney cannot just cling to the values of old, the simple tenets that collected a Grand Slam in 2009.

A new, definitive style of play must be developed alongside the hurried introduction of newer players in place of the absent established stars.

For, even if Ireland kick, bite and scratch their way to a slim success on Saturday, the immediate boost may be advantageous, but, as the last three years of slow decline have demonstrated, short-term gain has ultimately been a hindrance, not a help.

Far beyond the mere names on the team-sheet, what they do, rather than who they are, will be of keener interest.

Back three

Likely lads - Zebo, Bowe, Trimble.

Other options - Hurley, Bowe, Zebo; Earls, McFadden, Trimble.

Compromised by the absence of Rob Kearney and the retired Geordan Murphy, as well as injuries further infield, and undermined by the baffling refusal to call up Felix Jones, Simon Zebo's call represents a gamble, but in many respects it is a shot to nothing.

Kidney clearly feels that Zebo's technical resemblance to Kearney -- he has a booming left boot for one thing -- will allow his side to retain some continuity, while adding an explosive attacking edge. Hopefully, Zebo won't be ordered to kick possession away all day.

He is a form player, albeit not in this position, and his difficulties against New Zealand on the wing last summer hint at the drawbacks of such a gamble. His experience at schools level playing at No 15 is an utter irrelevance.

Kidney assumes, like the rest of us, that the Springbok game plan will not stretch beyond the realms of the very basic; hence he has spurned the more rudimentary requirements presented by Denis Hurley or the part-time full-backs like Ian Keatley and Ian Madigan.

Ulster duo Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble earn their stripes on the basis of form, with Fergus McFadden's ear injury costing him a start, while Keith Earls is required further infield. If it all goes pear-shaped, the team can always be reshuffled.


Likely lads - D'Arcy, Earls.

Other options - D'Arcy, Bowe/ McFadden.

Again, not really a cause celebre to rant and rave about here. Had O'Driscoll been fit, there would have been calls to splinter the ageing Leinster combination, but Gordon D'Arcy's defensive nous is indispensable.

Earls gets a chance to demonstrate his potential in his preferred position and if his pack can offer him platform, there are weaknesses to exploit in the opposition midfield.


Likely lads - Sexton, Murray.

Other option - Sexton, Reddan.

This is the area that so vexes critics of Kidney's selection policy and consequently his inability to develop a coherent style of rugby from players who thrive on the provincial stage.

The extraordinary domination of European club rugby by Leinster, with the Jonny Sexton/Eoin Reddan half-back partnership at its pivotal core, has rarely been replicated at national level by Kidney.

His reluctance to perm the pair together remains one of the most puzzling conundrums of the Kidney era when the selection at scrum-half has often seemed patternless.

Kidney seems to prefer Conor Murray's physicality -- albeit he has never told Reddan that. In mitigation, the Munster man, his Paris brainstorm aside, has shown improved form this term, while his rival has been impacted by fitness issues.


Likely lads - Healy, Strauss, Ross.

Other option - Healy, Cronin, Ross.

It will be an all-Leinster line-up (right) and there is little debate here apart from the hooking position, and the understandable anger of those who view the IRB's residency laws with utter disdain, to the extent that an imported project player elbows out a player in whom exorbitant IRFU time and money have already been invested.


Likely lads - Ryan, O'Callaghan.

Other options - Ryan, Tuohy/ McCarthy.

O'Connell's injury-enforced absence is the latest cruel blow to be inflicted upon an Irish squad already grasping for resuscitative air following their humiliation in their last international outing.

The Munster second-row's return was hyped by Anthony Foley's lavish exhortations of his influence earlier this week; without him, there is a massive hole in the side, and a player like Donnacha Ryan needs to demonstrate that he can become a similar type of enforcer.

Mike McCarthy has been the best performing of the other locks available, but Kidney, sensing such a significant deficit of leadership materials and experience, could decide to draft in veteran Donncha O'Callaghan, who has been re-energised at Munster, where he has enjoyed some relatively decent form.


Likely lads - O'Mahony, Henry, Heaslip.

Other options - McLaughlin, Henry/O'Mahony, Heaslip; Henderson, Henry, Heaslip.

Kidney is hamstrung here by the absence of key enforcers Ferris and O'Brien, who would have had untrammelled rights to a starting berth had they been fit, so he has to juggle his forces.

With Shane Jennings, currently in the form of his life, seemingly cast into premature retirement, there is no natural No 7 in the squad, but Chris Henry is at least a player who is performing with a seven on his back regularly -- and he is in fine form too.

Peter O'Mahony's potential to develop into a consistently high-quality international-class player remains questionable. Like Munster colleague Ryan, he needs to stamp his authority on the occasion and limit the disappointment caused by the Ferris absence.

With the South Africans missing their leading back-row stars, Jamie Heaslip, now likely to captain the side -- he has never lost when leading Leinster -- should demand that his trio dominate their opponents.

The bench

Likely lads - Cronin, Kilcoyne, Bent, McCarthy, Henderson, O'Gara, Reddan, McFadden.

Other options - Court, Archer, McLaughlin, Jackson.

Iain Henderson would be the stand-out inclusion on the Irish bench, marking him down as a unique bolter just weeks after signing his first professional contract with Ulster.

Michael Bent's addition is more controversial, given his well-publicised acceleration into the national squad before he has even represented his new club, Leinster.

Elsewhere, Dave Kilcoyne is likely to be rewarded for some very good form under Rob Penney at Munster, meaning that Grand Slam stalwart Tom Court may miss out.

McFadden will cover the back-line positions as a utility candidate if fully fit, while Paddy Jackson will wait in the wings if rumours about Ronan O'Gara's fitness remain an issue.

Ireland v South Africa:

S Zebo, T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, A Trimble, J Sexton, C Murray, C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, D Ryan, D O'Callaghan, P O'Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip (capt).

Irish Independent

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