Wednesday 24 January 2018

Hugh Farrelly: No changes, no surprises for game against Italy

Donncha O'Callaghan is tackled by
Jamie Heaslip at Ireland's training
session in Maynooth
Donncha O'Callaghan is tackled by Jamie Heaslip at Ireland's training session in Maynooth

Hugh Farrelly

While the postponed Paris fixture has provided Ireland with the perfect opportunity to relaunch their Six Nations campaign at Lansdowne Road this weekend, the fact that it is Italy, a lunch-time kick-off and an unaltered line-up means a certain degree of flatness in the build-up.

If the France game had gone ahead, there was every chance of Ireland coach Declan Kidney making changes for this match either on the basis of what had transpired in Paris, or on a rotation basis for a clash that, on paper, is Ireland's most negotiable Six Nations assignment.

In the circumstances, Kidney was never likely to change a team that did not get the chance to play together, regardless how well some of the back-up players performed for their provinces last weekend.


"It was not a case of saying, 'let's go again.' We had quite a discussion," said Kidney. "There were various permutations to consider, but this team was good enough to play against France and we consider it good enough to play against Italy."

The Ireland starters go into this match without a game for three weeks -- five in the case of Keith Earls -- and it is interesting to note that while Kidney rested his frontline players, many of Italy's main men, not under the same player-management controls, lined out for their clubs at the weekend -- including their captain Sergio Parisse.

Whether it is better to play or rest is a matter of opinion, but Kidney had four Six Nations matches in succession to consider, as well as allowing the likes of Jonathan Sexton to recover from minor knocks.

Ireland are a team that tend to grow into the championship so, even if they underperform against Italy, there is no guarantee of change for the return to Paris. The danger is sticking doggedly to the same players and they do not improve (as happened at the World Cup in 2007) but, for all Italy's organisational improvements under Jacques Brunel, it should not come to that.

Now, it is the Scotland game, third of the four, which looks best suited to a bit of controlled rotation and it is encouraging to register that Kidney has talented options in practically every area of the team (prop is still a concern) -- it is a question of when, or if, he uses them.

Back three

Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble

Kearney was superb against Wales, Trimble grew into the match and Bowe mixed good finishing with questionable defending. Italy are unremarkable out wide and this is an opportunity for the back three to make hay.

Next man in: Dave Kearney is flourishing this season and looked very sharp again for Leinster last weekend.


Gordon D'Arcy, Keith Earls

D'Arcy won his first cap nearly 13 years ago and is set to win his 65th on Saturday. That is the day to step up to the mark as a backline leader in Brian O'Driscoll's absence. Earls has been charged with the task of trying to emulate O'Driscoll's magic from 13 -- it's a big ask but he possesses the skills and motivation to make an impact.

Next man in: Fergus McFadden provided further evidence for Leinster last weekend that he has the makings of a quality international 12 and if D'Arcy fails to produce, his Leinster colleague's claims will be hard to resist.


Jonathan Sexton

This is an ideal chance for Sexton to re-energise his international career and if his pack can provide quick, quality ball, the Leinster out-half can run the show. Nailing his place-kicks is vital.

Next man in: Superb again for Munster at the weekend, there was a time when Ronan O'Gara was selected at 10 regardless of form -- now he finds himself consistently on top of his game and still on the bench, placing an extra onus on Sexton to deliver.


Conor Murray

Murray looks the part at this level and had a decent outing against the excellent Mike Phillips last time. This would be a good time for the Sexton-Murray partnership to properly gel.

Next man in: Eoin Reddan is an assured alternative who brings a different tempo and nous to the role. And there are signs that Tomas O'Leary is back in Kidney's thinking, even if he moves to France.

"In terms of him playing for Ireland, if players are playing well, they'll play for Ireland," said Kidney. "You want as many players playing at home as possible but if they do go abroad we are not going to hold that against them. These are big decisions and we will wish him well whatever he decides."


Cian Healy, Mike Ross

Untouchable as Ireland's first-choice props.

Next man in: Tom Court is the option but the Ulster man is not as dynamic as Healy or as powerful a scrummager as Ross. Ireland could do with Jamie Hagan continuing his recent revival.


Rory Best

Ireland's best player since last summer and an inspirational figure during a difficult period.

Next man in: Sean Cronin is having a big season with Leinster and offers quality back-up.


Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell

Both went well against Wales and their hard-edged experience will be needed as Ireland seek to subdue Italian fire early on.

Next man in: Different style to O'Callaghan but Munster clubmate Donnacha Ryan has all the tools to produce if he does get a start in this championship.


Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip

Up against a couple of top-class operators in Parisse and Alessandro Zanni but after the frustrations of the Wales defeat, expect a big one from this trio on Saturday.

Next man in: Peter O'Mahony is poised to win his first cap off the bench, and deservedly so. He looked good again for Munster at the weekend and represents an intriguing option at openside if there is a decision to move O'Brien over.

Irish Independent

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