McLaughlin worth a punt in back-row
SO, whither now Ireland? France are looming, following one of those compelling performances that makes you marvel at their talent -- and their inconsistency.
Team selection for Sunday's showdown with Les Bleus is critical for Ireland's 2011 progress. This is not the 'as you were, and we'll mix it up for one game' approach of the Grand Slam two years ago. This is a situation complicated by injury, error and uncertainty and the need to strike a balance between giving players another chance to establish themselves and acknowledging that certain combinations did not work.
Let's begin with the front-row and the scrum. The Italians were tough, the French will be tougher. On Saturday, Thomas Domingo had Scotland's renowned religious tight-head Euan Murray wishing it was a Sunday while, on the other side, Allan Jacobsen was looking for his blankie as Nicolas Mas got to work.
It requires serious pause for thought. First up, Mike Ross deserves to keep his place. He had to cope with refereeRoman Poite failing to admonish the blatantly illegal tactics of Salavatore Perugini but, for the two critical engagements -- the scrum that set up Brian O'Driscoll's try on 42 minutes and the one after 70 when Italy were pushing for a score by the posts -- he was rock solid.
Furthermore, he had a hand in a couple of turnovers, made some big hits and carried well. Ross is a player who gets better with consistent game-time and he dominated Domingo in Leinster's back-to-back clashes with Clermont in December.
At loose-head, Cian Healy was under extreme pressure from Martin Castrogiovanni and Mas is better again. Thus, there is sense to starting Tom Court, the older and more powerful scrummager, for this one, unleashing Healy in the second half and then reverting to the Leinster man against Scotland.
There is argument for change at hooker also. Rory Best did well on Saturday given his recent injury problems but Sean Cronin is not as far behind the Ulster man in terms of scrummaging power as many believe and would add dynamic ball-carrying where Best barely featured.
In the second-row, Paul O'Connell had an encouraging return to international rugby, coinciding with much improved restart play and solidity in Ireland's, limited line-out options. Next to him, Donncha O'Callaghan was Ireland's most effective forward and, unfortunately for the in-form Leo Cullen, deserves to hold on.
The back-row is the big conundrum. Injuries to Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip required a new combination and they struggled to gel. Denis Leamy, Sean O'Brien and David Wallace are ball-carrying back-rows and they were not as balanced or effective as their Italian counterparts.
Additionally, as we flagged beforehand, their lack of inches robbed Ireland of a third line-out option and the best attacking ball off the back, while Italy had a clutch of jumpers to aim at.
France have a big athletic back-row and this could require a radical change, with Rhys Ruddock, Kevin McLaughlin and Mike McCarthy the options to come in at blind-side to solve the line-out issue.
Given the combination of inexperience and lack of game-time, in McLaughlin's case, any of those three would constitute a massive, if calculated, gamble.
Jamie Heaslip will be straight back in if cleared to play and Shane Jennings should also come into consideration for his breakdown work, even though Wallace battled hard.
At scrum-half, the contra-form selection of Tomas O'Leary backfired. He made his tackles as he was brought in to do but, offensively, O'Leary was considerably below par and it hurt Ireland's attacking ambition. Change is required.
Ronan O'Gara, given that he has been playing behind a struggling Munster pack, is Ireland's form out-half this season. The Corkman, as he showed with his superb last 10 minutes (including on exquisite wraparound) is right on top of his game, but Sexton played well before being substituted and, for all O'Gara's justifiable claims, it is hard to see Kidney changing his No 10.
Outside, with Bowe and Trimble still on the injured list, it should be same again. It is hard to imagine the same amount of unforced errors and the back three did well -- especially Luke Fitzgerald at full-back.
So, controlled change is the order of the day -- and a punt at No 6.
HUGH FARRELLY'S IRELAND TEAM TO FACE FRANCE -- L Fitzgerald; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, E Reddan; T Court, S Cronin, M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, S O'Brien/J Heaslip. Reps: R Best, C Healy, L Cullen, D Wallace, P Stringer, R O'Gara, P Wallace.