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Ryan facing the biggest questions


Jamie Heaslip (R) and Brett
Wilkinson are put through
their paces during yesterday's
training session at Carton
House, Maynooth

Jamie Heaslip (R) and Brett Wilkinson are put through their paces during yesterday's training session at Carton House, Maynooth

Jamie Heaslip (R) and Brett Wilkinson are put through their paces during yesterday's training session at Carton House, Maynooth

IT has been a gruelling championship for Declan Kidney and his players, but Ireland are going back to the well again for Saturday's showdown with Scotland at Lansdowne Road.

While Ireland have had to cope with a succession of injury issues, an exacting schedule of four games in four weeks and a six-day turnaround after an intensely physical and emotionally draining draw in France, Scotland have been quietly preparing for a game they fully believe they can win -- particularly as the hosts are without their twin totems of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.

With England in Twickenham following seven days later, there were practical arguments for Kidney to give some of his front-liners a break, but O'Connell's injury placed an extra emphasis on the 'tried and trusted', while there is also an opportunity for the players who were so impressive in the first half last weekend to build on the positives from Paris.

Thus, the only two changes to Kidney's first-choice selection for this Six Nations are injury-enforced, Donnacha Ryan getting his much-anticipated start in place of O'Connell in the second-row and Eoin Reddan slotting in for Conor Murray at scrum-half.

"Once we were given the fixture list, we said: 'well, what do we do?'," said Kidney.

"It's not the pool stages of a World Cup where you can rotate things around, it's four cup finals and so it's important to take each one with your best foot forward."

It means in four matches, Ireland will have started only 18 players, but while Kidney has been held to task for his 'same-again' selections, the logic behind it is hard to dispute.

It is also worth noting that this selection shows only six players who started in the same positions in the Grand Slam decider against Wales three years ago -- Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Gordon D'Arcy, Donncha O'Callaghan, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip.

Even allowing for injuries, that is a notable transition and reflects Kidney's adherence to his own oft-referenced intention to "build a squad" since he took over in 2008.

And, while Ireland were swift to play down injury fears surrounding hooker Rory Best, the Ulster man's inheriting of O'Connell's captaincy role was another logical decision, as seamless as Kidney could hope for, especially given their previous captain-coach experience in 2009.

Nonetheless, an improving Scotland outfit will ask some serious questions on Saturday and, if Ireland cannot find satisfactory answers, there is a genuine danger of a repeat of the upset of 2010.

how much will O'Connell absence harm line-out?

This is a major concern. O'Connell's world-class line-out ability is well established -- he organises it, calls it and wins the majority of it.

With forwards coach and line-out guru Gert Smal also out of the picture, there is a massive responsibility on Ryan making the calls and winning ball when, in different circumstances, he could concentrate on playing his normal game alongside O'Connell, just as he does for Munster.

Scotland come to Dublin with two enormous second-rows in Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton and the best line-out record so far in the championship, while Ireland have the worst (see panel), although that is qualified by their lack of throws.

Ryan and O'Callaghan are both natural front-of-the-line jumpers, and Gray, especially, is a major threat in the middle, putting further pressure on the accuracy of Best's throw.

Mike McCarthy has taken Ryan's slot on the bench and is a superb lineout operator and caller for Connacht -- the only issue is that McCarthy does not stand much over 6'4" against the 6'8"-plus Scottish pair -- having Devin Toner there on 'in case of emergency' duty was a viable option.

The line-out battle will have a major bearing on the outcome, and Kidney confirmed that stand-in forwards coach Anthony Foley, Ryan, Best and O'Connell have been working to ensure Ireland come out the right side of it.

"Paul came into camp yesterday, and did a lot of work with Donnacha and Anthony, and they were comfortable with where they sat with the lineouts," said Kidney.

What does O'Connell's absence mean elsewhere?

O'Connell leaves a massive void, both in terms of leadership and all-round contribution.

However, Ryan is a player on top of his game and a second-row who Smal described at the World Cup as having the ability to be the "next Paul O'Connell". Although matching O'Connell's work-rate is a big ask, Ryan's off-loading game is top quality and he puts himself about on and off the ball. These are huge boots to fill but the Nenagh man has it in him.

As for leadership, Best is an impressive figure in and around the squad. He goes about his business with calm assurance and is in the form of his career.

"Rugby has been going 130 years and coaches are only a new phenomenon -- up to 30 years ago captains used to run the teams," said Kidney.

"It's important you lay foundations that the captain is comfortable with. Brian might like doing one thing, Paul another and Rory another, so the job then is to make it as comfortable as possible for him."

What does Reddan bring to the table?

Experience and form. Murray was very good against the French, but Reddan has been playing extremely well all season and has shown his ability off the bench to bring on the men around him and quicken the pace of the game.

The fact he works with Jonathan Sexton on a regular basis at Leinster cannot hurt Ireland's half-back symmetry and, while he may not have Murray's size and raw power, Reddan is extremely quick on the break, with Tomas O'Leary back in the match-squad for extra muscle if required.

Is this a side equipped to beat Scotland?

Undoubtedly, but the Scots, despite five successive losses, are a coming team, rejuvenated by the youthful energy of Stuart Hogg, Lee Jones and David Denton.

Their increased potency is demonstrated by their standing top of the pile in terms of passes completed and line breaks after three matches (see panel) but that is balanced by Ireland being well ahead in terms of tries scored/conceded and tackle completion.

They do not have a great try-scoring record in Dublin (four from their last five visits), but this is a side that can do damage and Ireland must maintain the standards they set in a superb defensive performance last weekend -- they have the firepower to get a result.

will last weekend's result affect Ireland?

Paris took a heavy toll and it was a fairly battered Ireland squad that flew home on Sunday night.

However, Kidney will take every step to ensure the players run out on Saturday in the best physical and mental shape possible. And, with each passing day casting that Paris performance in an increasingly positive light, there should be no psychological ramifications from their failure to put away France after establishing a 17-6 half-time lead.

"The most important thing is that lads are looking forward to the game on Saturday," said Kidney.

Irish Independent