Monday 16 December 2019

Case for change

Ronan O'Gara pictured before yesterday's Ireland training session in Greystones DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Ronan O'Gara pictured before yesterday's Ireland training session in Greystones DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE

WITH three games played in last year's Six Nations campaign, Ireland coach Declan Kidney ignored the mantra about never changing a winning formula and hit the rotate button for the trip to Murrayfield.

The team had played extremely well in the victories over France, Italy and England but Kidney still made four changes, which provoked considerable surprise in some quarters but proved to be an extremely intelligent use of resources. It was not as though players were parachuted in out of the blue; the changes -- Rory Best, Denis Leamy, Peter Stringer and Gordon D'Arcy -- were experienced, quality internationals.

The move galvanised the squad, providing incentive for the wider squad members and keeping the front-liners on their toes. It also had positive repercussions for the Grand Slam-securing final instalment against Wales in Cardiff seven days later.

Stephen Ferris was forced off after only eight minutes against the Welsh and Leamy's stunning display off the bench must have benefited from his involvement in the build-up to, and participation in, the Scottish match (though a knock forced him off after half an hour in Murrayfield).

Likewise D'Arcy -- who held onto his spot after the win over Scotland -- and Stringer, who set up the crucial try for Jamie Heaslip in Murrayfield and played a critical role when introduced for Tomas O'Leary in Cardiff by firing out a perfect pass for Ronan O'Gara to drop the Grand Slam-winning goal.


A year nearer to the World Cup, and with the Parisien pressure eased by the excellent win in Twickenham, there is an argument for a similar type of controlled rotation for Saturday's meeting with Wales at Croke Park.

The Six Nations comes closest to the intensity of World Cup rugby and Ireland have only seven Six Nations matches to play before New Zealand 2011. If players can be exposed to this environment on a squad-strengthening basis without threatening the winning habit that Ireland have developed since November 2008 (aside from their Paris aberration), then that widens the options looking down the road.

The counter-arguments are that Wales are an extremely dangerous side and that there is a Triple Crown (and notional thoughts of a championship) still to play for.

If Kidney were to go down the 'controlled rotation' route, he could look at tight-head prop, open-side flanker and perhaps even centre. Brian O'Driscoll is due to win his 100th Ireland cap on Saturday but though the subsequent medical tests have been reassuringly positive, the captain took a horrendous blow to the head from Paul O'Connell's knee against England.

Giving him an extra week before marking his century milestone in the last match of the championship against the Scots carries a certain degree of logic, and would also allow Keith Earls -- the man most likely to fill in should anything happen to O'Driscoll at the World Cup -- the chance to run alongside D'Arcy at outside centre.

That could mean Andrew Trimble coming back onto the left wing, but the Ulster man did not help his cause with a loose display in their Magners League defeat to the Scarlets last weekend. Rob Kearney is also back in the equation, which would open the possibility of a Kearney/Tommy Bowe/Geordan Murphy back three if Earls moves inside.

John Hayes deservedly earned the plaudits after becoming Ireland's first centurion in Twickenham but there is an argument for giving Tom Court or Tony Buckley a go in the No 3 jersey. Court has been strong for Ulster and has done well on his run-ons for the national side, while Buckley backed a decent cameo against England with an impressive showing in Munster's defeat to the Dragons last weekend.

With Mike Ross still warming the Leinster bench, these two are the back-up to Hayes and starting a big Six Nations match against Wales would be a true test of their long-term viability.

Shane Jennings came into the match-22 equation following injury to Sean O'Brien and took his chance splendidly when introduced for the Twickenham endgame. O'Brien was having a quality season and will undoubtedly come back into the reckoning when he recovers but Jennings' qualities make a convincing case for his inclusion this weekend.

David Wallace was part of a powerful back-row performance, alongside Ferris and Heaslip, against England and has a good record against Martyn Williams -- if Wales start the veteran open-side. However, giving Jennings a run on the same basis Kidney gave Leamy a go last year could have similarly beneficial results looking ahead to the Scotland match and summer tour.

After the Paris nightmare, there were concerted calls for Tomas O'Leary to be replaced at scrum-half which paid scant acknowledgment to the Munster man's crucial role in the successes of 2009. Every player is entitled to one off day and there were quite a few of those against France.

Against England, he produced a typically powerful performance and, while O'Leary's box-kicking continues to be an issue, he is unquestionably Ireland's first-choice No 9.

It is just the same as last year, when Kidney rotated him for Stringer, who also has to be in serious consideration for a place in the 22 after a series of strong performances. However, with Wales expected to return the 6'3" Mike Phillips to their starting line-up, it makes sense to have O'Leary on him.

Elsewhere, Donncha O'Callaghan performed strongly after a month on the sidelines and should be better again with the England game under his belt. Leo Cullen is an excellent option off the bench, while Ronan O'Gara should continue to provide a similarly effective back-up role to starting out-half Jonathan Sexton.

When the team is named at lunchtime today, the expectation is that Kidney will leave well enough alone. Wales, for all their flakiness, are dangerous when they get going and are capable of upsetting Ireland's Triple Crown designs.

However, the Welsh also look soft down their spine. Injuries have left their front five vulnerable, Ryan Jones is struggling at No 8 (not helped by a calf injury niggle) and their midfield is prone to error.

It could allow scope for controlled rotation and if Ireland's coach was to take that route, something along the lines of the following selection would be interesting and progressive.

IRELAND ROTATION XV -- R Kearney/G Murphy; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, G Murphy/A Trimble; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, R Best, T Buckley/T Court; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); S Ferris, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

Irish Independent

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