Thursday 14 December 2017

Experience the main component in Irish Six Nations battleplan

Kidney relies on his warrior class to make amends for World Cup defeat

Ireland coach Declan Kidney during training on Wednesday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Declan Kidney during training on Wednesday. Photo: Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

A PACKED hotel room, Declan Kidney reading out a list of established names and the first question revolving around the key selection of out-half ... yesterday's Ireland team announcement felt a lot like the World Cup.

That tournament ended in crushing disappointment at the quarter-final stage, but, rather than take the England approach of radical rethink, there was always likely to be continuity of selection for Sunday's Six Nations opener against Wales.

There are only two personnel changes -- Jonathan Sexton starting ahead of Ronan O'Gara and Andrew Trimble coming on to the left wing as Keith Earls is moved into midfield to replace the injured Brian O'Driscoll.

The replacements' bench continues the trend of tried and trusted -- with the exception of uncapped back-row Peter O'Mahony, whose rise to prominence has been rewarded by Kidney, just as the Ireland coach acknowledged scrum-half Conor Murray's momentum last summer.

This was never a case of turning to a new body of players, rather it is about getting the same group to identify and eradicate the mistakes that opened the door for the Welsh last time out and there are certain critical questions to be addressed in this regard.

1 Is this a form selection by Kidney?

It is hard to argue otherwise. There are some very tight calls: O'Gara was arguably playing slightly better than Sexton, Fergus McFadden could claim the same when his centre performances this season are compared to Earls' and Donnacha Ryan has been starting, and playing superbly, for Munster ahead of Donncha O'Callaghan, who takes the second-row spot next to captain Paul O'Connell. However, there are no examples of players in superb form losing out to a rival who is blatantly out of sorts.

"There are a number of tight calls throughout the team, lads have been going very well," said the Ireland coach. "Fergus McFadden is going well and 10 is always a hot spot of conversation, both are going well, so how do you split them? Jonny gets the call this time."

2 Is selecting Earls in midfield a gamble?

A calculated one. McFadden has the stronger defensive game and would provide greater solidity against what will be a dangerous Welsh midfield, whoever is selected.

However, Earls is no stranger to the 13 slot and played very well there in Munster's thumping win over Northampton. The fact he has not trained since last week due to the birth of his daughter carries an element of risk, but there are also upsides in terms of energy and enthusiasm.

"The way Keith has been finishing the Heineken Cup games over the last couple of weeks, I think he has been playing really strongly," said Kidney.

"It is a big statement to hold that (O'Driscoll's) slot. Having your first child is a big day for any man and I think it was only right to give him space; they are people first, players second."

3 What is this team's defining characteristic?

Experience. The void left by O'Driscoll's absence places extra emphasis on this key ingredient. Even though there are only four players in the starting 15 who have celebrated their 30th birthday, there is a very settled look to this side.

This is a selection of level-headed individuals who are unlikely to be flustered by the weight of expectation or size of occasion -- including Murray, who may be making his Six Nations debut, but has repeatedly demonstrated an ideal temperament for the big day.

4 Given that this is, essentially, the same group of players that failed to handle Wales at the World Cup, is continuity justified?

Yes, for now. Ireland had a good World Cup, but their tournament was defined by that one bad day against the Welsh. The players deserve the opportunity to put right what went wrong in Wellington, which has been the focus since they came together for the review in December.

Wales, primarily for injury-related reasons, are likely to show several changes to the side that beat Ireland so decisively last October and if Ireland lose again, continuity becomes an issue for the trip to Paris.

Ireland tend to get better as the Six Nations progresses, but it would still be hard to resist the calls for change if they come up short against the Welsh for the third game in succession.

"It is never an issue of picking a guy, the issue is who not to pick," said Kidney.

"We had some good days in 2011 and a very disappointing day the last time we played together. Wales played very well that day. One bad game does not make it a bad team, we have got to play as well as we can and see what happens."

5 Is this is a side capable of playing a more expansive game?

Unquestionably. The quality of the Irish players' attacking ability was never in doubt, but provincial verve has not been consistently replicated at international level.

Responsibility for that failing has to fall to a significant degree upon former backs coach Alan Gaffney and now the onus is on Les Kiss and Mark Tainton.

The noises coming from the camp are encouraging in terms of widening their attacking options and this is a backline packed with attacking potential -- not least Earls who has the quick feet and pace to do some serious damage.

"We have taken a look at some of the attack stuff and we hope to do some different things," said Kidney.

"We want to give guys options and they have to pull out the wise one at the right time. There will be times to go wide and times to go up the guts. We need wisdom to make the right calls."

6 What is this team's critical unit?

Ireland's front five have to produce to free up the rest of the side. In Wellington, the Irish were bossed in this department, never able to repeat the dominance they had displayed against Australia and Italy.

The knock-on effect was that the back-row, so impressive up to that point, never built up any head of steam, while the backline rarely had quality possession to work with. This is the front five's opportunity for atonement and likely to have been a key factor in the selection of O'Callaghan, a noted scrummager, over Ryan.

"Donnacha Ryan has been playing exceptionally well with Munster and has come on in leaps and bounds since the World Cup," said Kidney.

"You look at the make-up and chemistry of the team, I would be happy to start either of them.

"I just think in the last game or two he has started, Donncha (O'Callaghan) has begun to show what he has always brought to Ireland."

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