Ross looks right man to conquer Rome
WHEN Ireland's senior and Wolfhounds squads were announced last week, it was immediately apparent there would be some movement between the two before the team was named to take on Italy.
The three leading candidates for elevation from the second string were scrum-half Tomas O'Leary, tight-head Tony Buckley and full-back Gavin Duffy and, while Buckley's hamstring problem in the disappointing defeat to Scotland 'A' mitigated against his chances, the other two were duly included in the 26-man senior panel for Rome that will be whittled down to 22 this afternoon.
As was Kevin McLaughlin, the Leinster blindside who made his debut against Italy at Croke Park last season but has been chronically short on game time this season due to injury. The trio of call-ups spelt bad news for Peter Stringer and Mike McCarthy, who were cut from the senior squad as a result.
McCarthy's initial presence was a reward for his consistent effectiveness in the back five for Connacht but he was always unlikely to make the squad for Rome. For Stringer, however, it is especially hard as when he made the senior squad ahead of O'Leary last week it looked to be a decision based on superior form and consistency for Munster this season.
However, this is undoubtedly a horses-for-courses selection based on O'Leary's defensive physicality against a side who make up for in grunt what they lack in subtlety. Going with Eoin Reddan and Stringer would have denied Kidney a Plan B in this regard and the intention, looking down the road all the way to the World Cup, strongly suggests carrying one muscle man (O'Leary or Isaac Boss) next to a smaller distributor (Reddan or Stringer) in every match-day squad.The injury issues that have dominated Ireland's build-up have allowed Kidney to bring on players who might ordinarily have not been selected which, while arriving in unwelcome circumstances, has definite advantages with the World Cup in mind. And, while there are certain positions that are locked down, there are also a number of intriguing possibilities in every area of the team.
The Italians can't do much but they can certainly scrummage and the last thing Ireland need is a retreating scrum as they attempt to set a template for 2011. There are three props named, with Cian Healy going for the loose-head jersey, Mike Ross up for the tight-head and Tom Court in the mix for both. However, starting Court at tight-head -- where he played alongside Healy in November -- would not make a great deal of sense given he has been playing loose-head for Ulster all season.
The logical selection is Leinster's Mike Ross at No 3, the form pick and one that guarantees a solid scrum on the key right-hand side. Healy is the man in form at loose-head and set to be a fixture for Ireland and a future Lion. However, for this fixture there is merit to starting Court with Ross as Ireland's best scrummaging unit just as, in December, Joe Schmidt started Heinke van der Merwe ahead of Healy for Leinster's trip to Clermont before reinstating the youngster for the return fixture.
A similar argument could prevail at hooker as Rory Best's experience and scrummaging power would be invaluable in Rome. His rib injury means the Ulster captain is short on match time which leaves it as a choice between getting 50 minutes out of Best from the off or starting with Sean Cronin.
Paul O'Connell's return from injury and suspension has been extremely encouraging and he looks nailed down for one second-row position. On form, Leo Cullen should be packing down alongside him but faces stern competition from Donncha O'Callaghan, O'Connell's long-time partner for Munster, Ireland and the Lions.
O'Callaghan had a tough day against Toulon a few weeks ago but his performance off the bench the following week against London Irish was eye-catching and, though Cullen deserves to start, either selection would give Ireland an advantage in this area.
No Stephen Ferris or Jamie Heaslip but an area of strength nonetheless. A back-row of David Wallace at seven, Sean O'Brien at No 8 and Denis Leamy at blindside would be a powerful unit but the need for a third line-out option could come into play -- as evidenced by McLaughlin's call-up -- particularly with Sergio Parisse now expected to play.
Picking McLaughlin or Rhys Ruddock at blindside would provide Ireland with a back-of-the-line jumper but would also constitute something of a gamble, given that pair's lack of international experience and McLaughlin's lack of game time. Then there is Shane Jennings, in magnificent form for Leinster and just the type of scrapper needed for this type of assignment. A fascinating selection poser.
Ronan O'Gara has been on top of his game this season and his superb performance in the final quarter against London Irish steered Munster to the Challenge Cup quarter-finals. It means Kidney has two quality out-halves to choose from and though it appears Jonathan Sexton is his designated starting 10, what would the other Six Nations countries give to have those options?
Scrum-half is a shoot-out between O'Leary and Reddan and, though the Leinster man is the form player, it would be no great surprise if Kidney started with O'Leary on a soften-them-up basis, with Reddan coming off the bench when the game starts to break up. A very tight call.
If the centre partnership features anything other than the enduring excellence of Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy then birds will start flying backwards over St Peter's Square.
The real conundrum for Kidney. Luke Fitzgerald is a world-class left-winger who wants to play full-back but has yet to hit his best form this season in either position, before or after his injury. Nonetheless, he is too good to leave out and there would be a lot of sense to picking him in the No 11 jersey with a licence to roam while trusting the No 15 jersey to the dependability of Duffy.
Fergus McFadden has been a revelation in Leinster's back three this season despite having played most of his career at centre and deserves to be in the starting line-up, with Keith Earls providing versatility and invention off the bench. Duffy at 15, McFadden at 14, Fitzgerald at 11 and Earls on the bench would be our preference but, as with many areas of this first-up selection, permutations abound. Not a bad way to have it.