Friday 15 December 2017

Cautious Kidney plays steady hand

There was no room for Rob Kearney in the Ireland team as Declan Kidney kept faith with the same team that started in Twickenham.
There was no room for Rob Kearney in the Ireland team as Declan Kidney kept faith with the same team that started in Twickenham. BRIAN LAWLESS / SPORTSFILE

Hugh Farrelly

OUT in Killiney yesterday, there was a brief burst of excitement when the media were initially not allowed into the grand ballroom reserved for team announcements.

A rumour furiously flashed around that the doors were locked because the Irish forwards were using the area to practise their line-outs but, given the relatively low ceiling and numerous hanging chandeliers, that did not seem very likely.

This was not a day for smashing chandeliers.

One alteration to the Ireland 22 which defeated England, fit-again Rob Kearney onto the bench for Andrew Trimble, was very much along expected lines.

It is clear that the shockwaves from Ireland's hammering in Paris continue to resonate within the Ireland war room. France in the Stade de France was a worthy test of the levels this squad aspires to and they were smacked about contemptuously.

Beating England soothed frazzled nerves but lose at home to Wales and target sights would have to be adjusted once more.

Thus, the pragmatism behind the 'as you were' selection, as Declan Kidney opts for continued cohesion. That Paris reverse was undoubtedly an influencing factor, with the Ireland coach yesterday likening the Welsh attacking threat to the French one that put three tries past Les Kiss' previously miserly defensive system.

"I think it will be a lot more like the French game," said Kidney. "Little errors where we are not communicating. If our defensive line isn't right, they will exploit that.

"I've done my maths and they are scoring a lot of points this season, they are scoring more than we are over the three matches."

Kidney taught maths in PBC Cork and he is on the money with his observations on Wales' point-scoring potential on Saturday. In their defeats to England and France and last-gasp victory over Scotland, the Welsh have amassed a 'points for' total of 68 to Ireland's 59.

"That means we have to try and tighten up in defence and try to be as good as we have been in attack," he added. "The thing I admire (about Wales), and I admire it in all teams, is that they are playing to the 80th minute.

"They played to the 80th minute last year; had that kick gone over we would have finished the championship on eight points each. We would have won the championship on points difference.

"When they were over two years earlier they managed to put one over on us here at Croke Park. I read it doesn't hold any fear for them and all those are challenges we have to face."

Gatland has a backline bursting with attacking potential -- Lee Byrne, Leigh Halfpenny, James Hook, Jamie Roberts and Shane Williams are all ball-in-hand players -- and will present the Irish defensive system with a threat they did not encounter against the bread-and-butter English offence.

And yet, this Welsh line-up does not inspire trepidation, particularly up front. Matthew Rees returns to re-form his Lions Test partnership with tight-head prop Adam Jones and both are quality players but Paul James is no Gethin Jenkins at loose-head.

Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell bossed their South African counterparts last November and, in that context, the Welsh second-row looks weak. Bradley Davies is big and honest but more cart-horse than racehorse while Luke Charteris brings line-out proficiency to the table but not a whole lot of physicality to go with it.

Gareth Delve comes into the back-row in place of the injured Ryan Jones and though the Welsh captain has not been at his best this campaign, the lump-hammer play of his replacement is nowhere near the league of his Irish counterpart Jamie Heaslip.

Martyn Williams takes over captaincy duties but this wonderful warrior does not look the player of 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam vintage and, just as against England, the back row is an area where Ireland's dominance should be pronounced.

Richie Rees is busy at scrum-half but does not pose the threat Mike Phillips would have while Stephen Jones at out-half is having a so-so season.

And, while dangerous in broken play and on the counter-attack, the Welsh have shown themselves to be exploitable in defence -- the other bit of relevant maths is the 'points against' tally of 80, the highest of this Six Nations campaign (22 points worse than Italy).

It all suggests that there was scope for Kidney to have a look at some options with one eye down the road towards the World Cup next year but, with Paris in mind and Wales showing some signs of flakiness, going with experience also makes considerable, if conservative, sense.

Ireland showed their capacity for clinical finishing against England and Geordan Murphy, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll are no mean attackers themselves while out-half Jonathan Sexton gets a deserved chance to build on his encouraging Twickenham outing.

It has been a strange build-up, certainly in comparison to the last two meetings between the sides. In 2008, there was the history of bad blood between Wales coach Warren Gatland and his then Ireland counterpart Eddie O'Sullivan -- the New Zealander winning that contest hands down, on and off the pitch.

Last year, Gatland's trash-talking tactics backfired as Kidney refused to rise to the bait and went onto claim the spoils as well as the high-moral ground. By comparison, the run-in to Saturday's contest has been low key so far.

Gatland, like Kidney (and O'Sullivan), is a former teacher and it appears he has learnt his lesson from last year as there was nothing from Wales' press conference yesterday that could be used on Ireland's dressing-room wall.

Yesterday was actually Teachers' Day in Lebanon -- a country where members of that profession are held in the highest regard -- but the Beirut build-ups for this clash have gone a bit Bundoran this time around.

No matter. A couple of monitored changes would undoubtedly have spiced things up but, post-Paris, perhaps the softly, softly approach is the best way to go.

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