Tuesday 20 March 2018

Kidney faces hard choices in key areas


B ernard Dunne announced his retirement from the ring on Friday. Boxers reach a point in their careers where the danger exists that further participation simply means taking more and more punishment for less and less success. Dunne appears to have timed his departure well.

The Irish rugby players must have felt some affinity with the former world champion as they repaired to Cork to analyse what went wrong in Paris. Some, like John Hayes, must now seriously consider whether it is worth putting long-term health at risk for a few more caps and the destruction of a reputation painfully gained.

Others, like Ronan O'Gara, are clearly feeling the heat. The outhalf was ill-advised to pen a letter of reply to an article by Kevin Myers in the Irish Independent. His action merely prolonged the discussion and gave credence to a view held by a self-confessed non-expert on the game.

The captain, Brian O'Driscoll, may have had the right idea. He boosted his bank balance by doing some promotional work but more importantly put himself back among adoring fans which would have helped to soothe the very natural feelings of disappointment after a hiding on the playing field.

The tighthead, the centre and the outhalf will, like the rest of the squad, have tried to put the events in Paris behind them and build for what, despite England's failings in Rome, will be a difficult task in Twickenham.

Declan Kidney's challenge is psychological and tactical. He must repair damaged egos and restore confidence, while attempting the difficult task of selecting a side that reflects the knowledge gained from watching his team destroyed by a superior force.

The coach is a master of psychology and will have little difficulty in delivering this group of committed professionals in good mental health for the challenge in London. He will remind them that they have not become a bad side after one game and that a Triple Crown is still on offer.

However, some of those in Cork will not run out of the tunnel at Twickenham. The coach faces hard choices, some enforced, in at least five positions. Kidney has never flinched in the past, and is unlikely to do so on this occasion, from making the right decision for the team.

Full-back is the major challenge for Ireland. Rob Kearney has played largely on reputation this year. He was helped in South Africa by opponents whose game plan was to kick the ball at him. It played into the full-back's strengths of bravery and safe hands and he prospered accordingly. His high fielding disguised that he remained a poor defender and, more especially, his ability to link has always been compromised by his failure to carry the ball in two hands. Keith Earls is not a viable alternative. Since the youngster burst on the scene, his handling at the back has always been suspect. The nightmares in South Africa and Paris were well signposted by his appearances for Munster. In descending order, he is a wing, a centre and a full-back.

Luke Fitzgerald must be kicking himself. The youngster has always seen himself as a full-back and he possesses everything Kearney has and more. Fitzgerald is probably one of the few players in the world who could play international rugby in every back line position from 15 to 11. Even the great O'Driscoll could not attempt that feat. Fitzgerald's has been the single most damaging injury for Ireland.

The selection options are limited and the return to fitness of Geordan Murphy is good news. The Leicester full-back is good enough to perform at Twickenham despite the lack of big games. However, if Kidney is prepared to go with Rory Best, despite any regular game time, then Murphy will probably get the nod. At least the team will have a specialist full-back rather than a makeshift option.

The position of the half-backs, however, will be another headache for the coach. The decision at number 10 is less complicated than it might seem. If it was correct that the outhalf selected for Italy would by definition play in Paris, then it makes equal sense that if the Grand Slam were no longer in play, then the alternative of Jonathan Sexton should be tried, as Ireland has two outstanding performers in that position and both should be kept in the frame with the World Cup on the horizon.

O'Gara did not play badly against France. Fly-halves can only operate when they have the ball on the front foot. Much has been made of Trinh-Duc's bouncing off O'Gara in a tackle. What has been forgotten is that once again the fly-half put his body on the line. The Cork man has never lacked moral or physical courage, unlike many of his international contemporaries.

The position at scrum-half is less clearcut. Tomás O'Leary has not performed well since his return from injury, but Eoin Reddan has done nothing to demonstrate that he is a superior player. The quickest passer remains Peter Stringer and his selection, unlikely though it may be, would improve the efficacy of the back line. Reddan may get the nod, only because a Leinster combination at half-back might be an advantage.

Hayes will receive his 100th cap and the deserved adulation and will survive because England's front row will be full of fearful rookies who will try to impress Martin Johnson in the loose rather than attack the setpiece. It would be cruel to expect the tighthead to survive another 80 minutes' pummelling for his country. It's time for a replacement to stand up and be counted.

Eddie O'Sullivan was very prescient when he commented that his chances of success depended on whether it was an odd or an even year and if his squad could avoid injury.

A visit to Paris and Twickenham in 2010 will probably confirm the aptness of his first statement and now the mounting injury and suspension toll are a likely to be an affirmation of the second. A Triple Crown and a high championship placing are getting harder by the day.

Sunday Independent

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