Sport Rugby

Wednesday 21 February 2018

O'Connell loss gives Kidney food for thought

Paul O'Connell
Paul O'Connell
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

AS THE Irish squad taxied along the Heathrow runway before taking off for New Zealand, several players tweeted to their hearts content, thanking their followers for their words of support -- and they'll need all the encouragement they can get for the task ahead.

Before he left, Declan Kidney lost Paul O'Connell to the knee injury he suffered in the Pro12 victory over Ulster a month ago.

The totemic second-row was given every opportunity, but he failed to progress to the level that would have allowed him to travel, so he was forced to forego the three-Test tour.

It means the Lions captain will never win in New Zealand, with Ireland unlikely to play there again for at least 12 years.

And, while many believe the summer break will do the 32-year-old good in the long term, it will do little for Ireland's chances of success against a team they, famously, have never beaten.

Already shorn of Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe and with doubts hanging over the fitness of Mike Ross, there is a sense of foreboding hanging over this tour that has now been exacerbated by the absence of O'Connell.

His boots will be hard to fill, with four contenders looking to fill two spots in the toughest rugby environment of them all.

THE STARTER

Donnacha Ryan

(Munster, Age: 28, Caps: 18)

THE shining light in a disappointing season at Munster, Ryan was nominated for Six Nations player of the year despite coming off the bench in three of Ireland's five matches.

Almost guaranteed a start, the Tipperary tyro offers energy and endeavour around the park and nous at the breakdown.

He will need support in the air against the All Blacks who will ask questions of him as never before.

THE INCUMBENT

Donncha O'Callaghan

(Munster, 33, 85)

PICKING O'Callaghan will tell us much about Kidney's mindset on this tour. His loyalty to the 33-year-old saw him start all of Ireland's Six Nations games, even when Ryan and O'Connell were first choice at Thomond Park.

Experience will be the coach's catchword when it comes to one of his most trusted lieutenants who rarely lets his country down in terms of effort.

O'Callaghan's game was based on an exuberance that appears to be on the wane, however, and he appears to be one of the golden generation most in the firing line. It would be no surprise to see him in the starting line-up for the first Test, but it will take something special to last the three.

THE FORM PICK

Dan Tuohy

(Ulster, 26, 2)

THIS stubborn operator has been a stalwart of Ulster's march to the Heineken Cup, but despite earning the admiration of Kidney for his hard work and line-out ability, the English-born Tuohy has earned just two caps -- both coming on the 2010 summer tour.

This appears to be his chance after a stellar season alongside Springbok Johann Muller in the Ravenhill side's engine room. Ulster's pack did most of the hard yards and, although the South African influence was huge, Tuohy's body of work was impressive.

He is unlikely to fear New Zealand and is the type of player who doesn't shirk a challenge. A form pick, he needs to edge O'Callaghan out on the training park in order to partner Ryan.

THE OUTSIDER

Mike McCarthy

(Connacht, 30, 4)

CONNACHT stalwart McCarthy is the main beneficiary of O'Connell's misfortune and boarded the plane in fourth spot yesterday.

After being in the running for a World Cup berth last year, the English-born lock had a decent, if not spectacular, season out west, but was ignored for the Six Nations when Ryan and O'Callaghan were preferred by Kidney.

He has his admirers in the Irish set-up and is, like Tuohy, unlikely to back down from the challenge of facing the All Blacks.

At 30, this could be his last chance to stake a claim for a regular berth in the squad and he needs to show something early to jump up the pecking order.

Irish Independent

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