Hugh Farrelly: Arguments for and against Declan Kidney’s reluctance to ring changes
'CONSERVATIVE' or 'consistent'? Defining Ireland's approach to this Six Nations is a debate that has divided opinion on the airwaves, in the press box, internet forums and bar stools.
Yesterday's expected announcement of one alteration to the starting line-up to face England on Saturday (Sean O'Brien returning to the No 7 jersey in place of Peter O'Mahony) sparked it up once again.
At the start of the championship, Declan Kidney named a side that showed only two personnel changes to the one which started the World Cup quarter-final defeat against Wales in October.
Keith Earls' move into midfield for the injured Brian O'Driscoll saw Andrew Trimble come onto the left-wing, while Jonathan Sexton was preferred to Ronan O'Gara at out-half -- and the Ireland coach has stuck steadfastly to that first-choice XV throughout this championship, the only alterations taking place due to injury withdrawals (see panel).
O'Mahony produced an impressive performance on his first start against Scotland last weekend, and there were calls for both him and O'Brien to start against England, with the latter switching to No 8. Instead, Kidney reverted back to his established back-row, but acknowledged that it had been extremely hard to leave O'Mahony out.
"Absolutely," he said. "It was a tough call on Peter. It's about combinations. We have four back-rows who are playing extremely well. I'm not going to write up one guy ahead of another. Peter did very well the last day, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris are all playing well too.
"We have a huge task ahead of us against England. They had one set of lads at the World Cup, they decided it wasn't working and to change a whole lot. That is what England can do; they are one of a few countries who can do that along with New Zealand, South Africa and France.
"It is about deciding on the combinations you start and finish with. I would love to give Peter another chance, but let me know who you want to leave out. There is always a good debate about that. You could argue really strongly for one or two players and I think it is good to have debate around it."
It is clear the Ireland coach is comfortable in his approach, but that does not prevent the debate continuing to rage about his head.
Is Kidney's consistency the right way to go?
Build for the future -- World Cups tend to draw a line in the sand and, following the disappointment of failing to reach a first semi-final after setting themselves up beautifully, there were calls for a brave new departure (England are now held up as the prime example of change breeding progress).
A further argument is that having signed a contract extension prior to the World Cup, the Ireland coach has the security to make changes, and that a post-World Cup Six Nations is the best time to do so.
Bold is best -- Introducing a flood of younger players is seen as a way of re-energising the team and style of play.
Wales are an obvious example following their exuberance at the World Cup and storming run at another Grand Slam and, while England's style has not been quite as compelling, there is no doubt the introduction of new blood like Owen Farrell, Ben Morgan and Chris Robshaw has reinvigorated their fortunes.
Scotland also, until they fell flat in Dublin, have benefited from the injection of the likes of Stuart Hogg, Lee Jones and David Denton.
Rewarding form -- Kidney's detractors argue that the performances of Donnacha Ryan, O'Mahony and Eoin Reddan last weekend proved that they should have been brought in by right, not by injury.
Other players to be championed include Ulster scrum-half Paul Marshall, Leinster centre Fergus McFadden and Munster winger Simon Zebo, all of whom have been enjoying productive seasons with their provinces.
ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR
Rankings -- Mention of the IRB world rankings prerogative tends to elicit a spate of eye-rolling among the proponents of change, but this grading is massively significant.
If Ireland are outside the top eight when the World Cup 2015 seedings are determined at the end of the year, the quest for that first last-four qualification will look sunk even three years out.
Given Ireland's exacting 2012 schedule, which includes three Tests against New Zealand in the summer, the imperative to win and move up the rankings is even more acute.
Their current position of seventh leaves Ireland vulnerable, and Kidney believes experience and consistency are key ingredients to negotiate this challenge.
Proof of progress -- Ireland top the Six Nations table in terms of tries scored and line breaks, and there have been definite signs of attacking advancement within the established set-up since the World Cup.
"We can't stand still," said Kidney. "There are things we are working on and all the time we are looking to convert every opportunity we get. We are certainly converting a few more than we have in the past."
There is also the argument that sticking with the same players allows combinations to develop as the championship progresses, and that has been the case with Ireland, who have been steadily ironing out the kinks exposed by Wales in their opener and have grown in confidence and performance as the tournament has gone on.
Measured change -- While the 'conservative' tag has been regularly flung at Kidney, he can rightly point to overseeing considerable change since the Grand Slam was won three years ago.
Just as he did with Conor Murray before the World Cup, Kidney was prepared to give O'Mahony a shot despite his relative inexperience.
Also, his approach is to ensure plenty of exposure to squad training and the international set-up rather than throw players in at the deep end.
Tight calls -- It is not as though the players Kidney has designated as first-choice have been playing badly.
O'Brien was immense in Paris and deserved to come back in and, although Heaslip has not been as prominent as the rest of the back-row, the Lions No 8 has been working hard in an established combination.
Similarly, Gordon D'Arcy has had a decent campaign, combining well with Earls in midfield, while Donncha O'Callaghan, who would have been vulnerable to Ryan's challenge had Paul O'Connell not been injured, has been solid also.
There is no denying it would have been exciting to see O'Mahony at seven and O'Brien at eight, or O'Gara and Sexton paired in midfield from the start.
However, Kidney has utter conviction in his selection policy and how to juggle the various conundrums within a punishing schedule to ensure he has the best chance of success come match day.
If Ireland lose on Saturday, this will be remembered as a poor Six Nations which only produced victories against the tournament's two poorest sides at home and compounded the disappointment of a failed World Cup.
If they win, Ireland will rocket up the rankings and this will have been an excellent campaign in extremely challenging circumstances.
The margins are that tight and, so, when you boil the debate down to its core, results are the ultimate arbiter.
"People play hard-earned money to watch us," said Kidney. "It is all building towards the future but now the priority is to play as well as possible in the Six Nations." Hard to argue with that.
Ireland -- R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton, E Reddan, C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D O'Callaghan, D Ryan, S Ferris, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, T Court, M McCarthy, P O'Mahony, T O'Leary, R O'Gara, F McFadden