Sport Rugby

Monday 11 December 2017

My 30 names for the world cup odyssey

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

leinster folk will hardly agree, but what transpired in the Magners League final last Saturday was good for Ireland's World Cup hopes and good for Irish rugby going forward.

With Munster, Leinster and Ulster taking the top three places in the Magners League and Leinster lifting the Heineken Cup to ensure a four-team Irish representation in next year's elite European competition for the first time, our professional game has never been in a better place.

As a prelude to New Zealand 2011, we could hardly be better positioned. The southern hemisphere's big three plus France will be the favourites, with England the dark horses.

However, I reckon Ireland are in the best nick we have ever been at this stage in the build-up to the tournament.

The lessons of France '07 have been learnt, in terms of the pre-tournament matches required.

We will play five friendlies in August (including a game against Connacht) in an attempt to hit New Plymouth on September 11 as close to full match fitness as possible. It is high-risk in terms of potential injury, but when weighed against the alternative -- collectively being stuck in low gear -- the call to load the last-month lead-up with highly competitive matches is the right one.

At Thomond Park last Saturday, it wasn't so much the side that wanted it more, but the one better equipped physically and mentally to go the extra yard which ultimately won out.

definitive

Munster needed it more and, in outscoring Leinster by three tries to nil, they certainly deserved their triumph.

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt was honest in his assessment and (as ever) humble in defeat. He and his opposite number Tony McGahan have been good for Irish rugby and, hopefully, will continue in that vein for some time to come. When criticism is warranted each will ship it, but some of the attacks from fair-weather, self-absorbed critics beggars belief.

Just as Schmidt and Jono Gibbes are the right coaching ticket at Leinster, so too are the re-energised McGahan/Anthony Foley combination down south. If 21 wins from 24 Magners League games, embracing the use of some 50 players, doesn't represent effective coaching, I don't know what does.

On the field, where it was Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Richardt Strauss dominating the breakdown in Cardiff, this time the talismen were in red, specifically Paul O'Connell and David Wallace, with the ever improving James Coughlan not far behind.

As a final trial for Declan Kidney, it made for a highly informative evening, which saw John Hayes return as a central figure.

The selection task for Kidney is massive. Picking a travelling squad of 30 players from what is pretty much a full hand is going to be tough.

I am assuming Jerry Flannery is not going to make it, but Stephen Ferris is. A fully fit, match-conditioned Flannery is still the first-choice hooker for me, but given the injury backdrop and time-frame, it appears a hurdle too high for the Limerick man.

The first issue for Kidney is the numerical breakdown. Does he go for a 16/14 forwards/backs split or will a 17/13 divide represent the safer option?

Because an injured player can be replaced in the party, my preference would be for 16/14 option, bearing in mind the need for a third pair of specialist halves as opposed to just one extra specialist in the pack (hooker).

Starting at full-back -- and here I think the head coach has his biggest dilemma -- it is a case of a blank canvas. The versatile Keith Earls did a job in the Six Nations, but it was as stop-gap cover -- although he could stand in again.

Rob Kearney would be my first choice, with Felix Jones now the best back-up. The uncapped Munster man, firmly installed as his province's best No 15, has put forward a good case. Ultimately it could come down to a call between Jones and Luke Fitzgerald.

Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Earls should make up the wings, but there is a strong case for the in-form Shane Horgan, with Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Fergus McFadden the centres.

McFadden can also double up on the wing, and provides a back-up goalkicking option to Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara.

With Sexton and O'Gara the out-halves, Paddy Wallace provides the luxury to Kidney of dual out-half/centre cover.

revelation

Conor Murray has been a revelation at scrum-half for Munster, but this World Cup has come a tad too early for him. On the assumption that Tomas O'Leary is back firing on all cylinders for August, it will be three from O'Leary, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss and Peter Stringer.

Cian Healy, Tom Court and Mike Ross are clearly the three leading props, with 'the Bull' Hayes up for one more World Cup as back-up to Ross.

Tony Buckley has fallen down the pecking order. And good though it was to see Marcus Horan back, I am not a fan of his on-field antics. Assuming Flannery is out, Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Damien Varley make up the hooking triumvirate, with Mike Sherry next in line.

In the second-row, Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell and Leo Cullen are shoo-ins. So, too I would think is Mick O'Driscoll, leaving Kevin McLaughlin and Donnacha Ryan to battle it out for a possible utility back-five position -- a player who can cover the second and back-rows.

And what about switching Ferris to the second-row in a World Cup emergency? The Ulsterman has the ability to cover.

As to the back-row specialists, O'Brien, Heaslip and David Wallace -- man of the match in Limerick last weekend -- are names chiselled in stone. To that, add Ferris and then one from Denis Leamy, Shane Jennings and Coughlan, with Connacht skipper John Muldoon the best of the rest.

Let me qualify all this by saying the squad that I have selected is based on the here and now. It is based on the season just ended, on current needs, on versatility and, in one or two cases on past deeds, fused with likely World Cup demands. But remember, a week is also a long time in rugby.

Irish Independent

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