Saturday 18 November 2017

Hit and run - No time for sightseeing for Kidney's decimated side

Ireland's Sean O'Brien in action during training yesterday at the RDS ahead of Saturday's Six Nations opener against Italy. Photo: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile
Ireland's Sean O'Brien in action during training yesterday at the RDS ahead of Saturday's Six Nations opener against Italy. Photo: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We are where we are, goes the buzz-line of the moment.

With all roads now leading to Rome it is an expression as relevant in a rugby context as it is to the wider world. If not quite decimated, we are certainly badly hit by injuries ahead of what is sure to be a severe test of limited resources at the Stadio Flaminio on Saturday.

Not since the Azzurri were in their pomp in the late 1990s has there been a better opportunity for the championship's Cinderella side to become the belle of the Six Nations ball in putting one over the Irish for the first time in a competitive international.

The fact that the sides are in the same World Cup pool gives this meeting an added psychological spice.

Given the ever-growing list of walking wounded, the Wolfhounds' defeat last Friday neither surprised nor reassured the nervous Declan Kidney. He may not show it, but when it comes to using the cards he is dealt, nobody carries the 'get on with it' act better than Ireland's head coach.

It is what makes him the supreme man-manager he is.

Strange

Certainly in the coming days and weeks those powers of optimistic reassurance will be put to the test, starting at today's team announcement.

It will be a strange selection and certainly not one anywhere near his ideal XV. Injury has forced his hand but, in a World Cup year, there could well be a longer-term benefit as fringe players get a chance to prove their worth.

Turn the clock back to the corresponding fixture in Dublin 12 months ago and no fewer than six of that starting team are either unavailable or out of the loop. Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Jerry Flannery and Jamie Heaslip are all injured, while John Hayes is deemed past his best, with Tomas O'Leary, Ronan O'Gara, Cian Healy, Donncha O'Callaghan, Kevin McLaughlin and David Wallace all struggling for inclusion this time round.

It is not inconceivable that Kidney could name a team showing just three players (Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Paul O'Connell) from last year's opening joust.

That represents a remarkable transformation in such a short period of time.

In addition, O'Connell, Luke Fitzgerald, O'Leary, Gavin Duffy, McLaughlin are all short of match time, while Keith Earls (much like Fitzgerald) is short on form and confidence. We are where we are, but not in his darkest moments could Kidney have imagined himself being in this position.

So where to from here? First things first, overcoming the Italians is paramount. Saturday is about putting the most effective match-winning combination in place for a hit-and-run mission on Rome.

Secure the right result and France at the Aviva will look after itself. Lose and the ramifications don't bear thinking about.

Recent provincial form should play a significant part in team selection but given the uncertainty caused by injury, unit combinations in training will have been micro-analysed like never before.

The front-row will have two changes for sure and could well have three should Healy lose out. For me a Healy/Rory Best/Mike Ross combination appears the most logical but it may depend on how they have gone as a combination in training.

Best's inclusion in the squad as one of two hookers would seem to indicate a clean bill of health. It would be a tough call on the ever-improving Sean Cronin but on a horses for courses selection policy, it's the Leinster props with the Ulsterman in between to start.

In the second-row, I suspect O'Callaghan and O'Connell will prevail, but were the call mine, it would be Leo Cullen as anchor alongside O'Connell.

In the back-row, because of injuries, Kidney is at least spared the tough call of who to leave out to include Sean O'Brien. I would have O'Brien at No 8, with Denis Leamy and David Wallace at No 6 and No 7 respectively.

The smart money is on Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton at half-back. Sexton will be driving the show but I feel O'Leary continues to be the most complete scrum-half around. I rate Reddan highly and like his all-action, sniping approach but O'Leary has the physicality so essential for Rome.

The centres, mercifully, pick themselves leaving the back three the biggest concern. The romantic in me suggests Fitzgerald or Earls at full-back, but surely common sense will prevail. Gavin Duffy may be a stop-gap but, for now, needs must with the Connacht man, by some way, the most logical call.

Fergus McFadden could slip in on the wing, and on form it would be well deserved, but Earls on the right with Fitzgerald on the left just about shades it for me.

Irish Independent

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