Tuesday 23 January 2018

Reserves of strength

Declan Kidney has a difficult job keeping everyone happy but if the players on the fringes don’t feel they should be starting, then they shouldn’t be involved at all

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There's a temptation to read a lot into the naming of 12 additional players to join an extended Irish squad ahead of next weekend's trek to Cardiff and the final showdown against the steam-rolling English at the Aviva seven days later.

It makes for an enlarged squad of 34 but if there is any real relevance, it is in the context of the World Cup. It is a difficult balancing act for Declan Kidney in attempting to keep a dozen or so peripheral players happy.

When you add Stephen Ferris, Jerry Flannery and Rob Kearney -- three automatic World Cup selections if fit -- then three of those named for 'guinea pig' duty this week will lose out.

The players might know it but it doesn't make it any easier for them. In their minds, as it should be, they are the best for their position irrespective of the coach's take. Kidney wouldn't want it any other way.

The player on the fringe who doesn't believe he is better than the man in possession shouldn't be involved at all.

The areas most likely to have figured in management discussions ahead of today's announcement of the team to face Wales on Saturday are full-back, scrum-half, covering prop and replacement utility back.

In the ongoing absence of Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald is, of necessity, re-learning the full-back trade at the highest level. It is not an easy transition. He is doing reasonably well in difficult circumstances and is the best bet to continue in the position to face the Welsh.

But it is significant that Johne Murphy, having lined out at No 15 for Munster against the Dragons on Saturday, is returning to the frame. He is a versatile player whose biggest issue in advancing to the next level is that he may be seen as jack of all trades but master of none.

He is a good all-round player and could have what it takes to fill the full-back spot for Munster but even there, with Felix Jones set to return after injury, there is no guarantee he will get the necessary game time.

And be clear on this: you cannot play one position for your province and another for your country without some degree of difficulty in adjusting. Fitzgerald is a case in point.

Coaches will babble on about an interchangeable back-three but the subtle variations in positional alignment can lead to ruthless exploitation, given the level of analysis now in force.

At scrum-half, Kidney's proven preference for the more robust skill set of Tomas O'Leary could see the Corkman return -- especially given the likely opposition in the guise of the similarly equipped Mike Phillips.

In this instance I think he would be wrong. I too am an O'Leary fan and, of the four scrum-halves, I see him as the best option available -- when he's on form. But there's the rub. He is not on form or remotely close to it. Eoin Reddan played sufficiently well against the Scots to warrant retention.

The issue I have is with the replacement scrum-half. Peter Stringer has breaking limitations but, in terms of speed of delivery, provides a different type of impact off the bench. Whether it is Reddan or O'Leary chosen at the base of the Irish scrum, it should be Stringer as back-up. I reckon Kidney will see it differently, though.

The impact argument applies to Sale-bound Tony Buckley too. He has done himself few favours by way of recent form, allowing Tom Court to slip in behind Cian Healy and Mike Ross as the clear-cut three in the front-row pecking order.


However, to write off the human wrecking ball that is 'Mushy' would be plain daft. Kidney is most definitely not of that school of thought. Court should retain his place in reserve for Cardiff but, rest assured, Buckley's form for Munster in his final few months is being monitored closely.

The inclusion of Rhys Ruddock, Kevin McLaughlin and Donncha Ryan is sensible and encouraging. There is an issue at the tail of the Irish line-out but the back-row of Sean O'Brien, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip is the best currently available on form and balance.

The other issue is with the utility replacement, and here I have the utmost sympathy for Paddy Wallace. Forever available but seldom wanted, Ulster's playmaking inside-centre must be frustrated in the extreme. Give me the choice between playing for my province and watching almost every Test without removing my tracksuit and I know where I would want to be.

Fergus McFadden did little wrong and so much right in his first two internationals and he seems a more complete utility replacement than Wallace.

He can fill the centre slot and either wing, while the inclusion of a specialist replacement out-half (most likely Jonny Sexton) removes the significance of Wallace, save for a restricted inside-centre role.

Put it all together and it amounts to little or no change for Cardiff. I would leave Ronan O'Gara in situ at out-half with Reddan alongside, making McFadden's versatility as a replacement the only basis for tinkering.

A case could be made for Ryan or McLaughlin instead of Denis Leamy, given the line-out option each might bring, but providing he keeps a lid on his temperament Leamy still has the all-important power -- such a key element to impact off the bench.

Tony Ward's team to play Wales

15 L Fitzgerald (Leinster);14 T Bowe (Ospreys), 13 B O’Driscoll (Leinster),12 G D’Arcy (Leinster), 11 K Earls (Munster); 10 R O’Gara (Munster), 9 E Reddan (Leinster);1 C Healy (Leinster), 2 R Best (Ulster), 3 M Ross (Leinster); 4 D O’Callaghan (Munster), 5 P O’Connell (Munster); 6 S O’Brien (Leinster), 7 D Wallace (Munster), 8 J Heaslip (Leinster).

Reps:16 S Cronin (Connacht), 17 T Court (Ulster), 18 L Cullen (Leinster), 19 D Leamy (Munster), 20 P Stringer (Munster),21 J Sexton (Leinster), 22 F McFadden(Leinster).

Irish Independent

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