Monday 23 April 2018

Kidney calls imperative to fast recovery

David Kelly

David Kelly

When Rory Best yesterday referred to the "shock to the system" which rippled through the Irish squad in the aftermath of their first defeat in 15 months, he was probably only skating the surface of the trauma now affecting the Irish selectors ahead of today's team announcement.

Already thieved of experienced players like Denis Leamy, Luke Fitzgerald, Jerry Flannery and Rob Kearney and hungry players such as Sean O'Brien and Donnacha Ryan, serious form issues now surround others, including Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell, David Wallace, John Hayes and Tomas O'Leary.

How Declan Kidney reacts to a variety of dilemmas will shine a revealing light on how the coach deals with the biggest test of his international career. Should he force his hand or maintain faith in his players after merely one, albeit headline-grabbing, setback?

That the problems run from back to front indicate the extent of head-scratching that will have accompanied those dwindling candles burning long into the night at the squad's Killiney HQ.

The back-three issue: Geordan Murphy or Keith Earls?

Has Geordan Murphy's return for Leicester, with some formidable hitting-the-line running -- within an arena where such stuff is a rarity -- proved enough to dent Kidney's faith in Keith Earls?

Earls has expressed in stark terms how much of a confidence player he is and his buffeting when required to slot in at 15 in Paris can hardly have helped his poise. Kidney's man-management may be required to reinvest Earls' faith in his abilities; otherwise it would make sense to revert him to a more favourable attacking, and less defensively vulnerable, wing slot.

Backs coach Alan Gaffney referred to Murphy's lack of game-time but the argument does not apply; Jerry Flannery and Rory Best had hardly been overburdened with game-time before they were called into Six Nations action this term.

Tommy Bowe remains nailed on but he will be asked to participate more. Kidney's other dilemma, regardless of his first-choice back three, is how much relevant cover he seeks to deploy on the bench.

Most observers with international experience declared that there was far too much disruption to the back-line for the sake of just one injury, with three alterations to full-back, wing and inside centre caused by injury to full-back Rob Kearney.

This is where Paddy Wallace will miss out, simply because one of either Andrew Trimble or Shane Horgan, or indeed potential bolter Denis Hurley, all cover the back three and would lessen disruption to a minimum. On form, Horgan should make the bench; arguably the team itself.

"We have got some flexibility there which is a great thing," says Gaffney. "Keith Earls offers a number of options. Tommy Bowe can play 13, 11, 14, 15 and Geordan's on the way back in and Geordan has obviously got the ability. So we'll just try and balance it and come up with the best possible option we think for the game."

The half-back dilemma: Jonny Sexton or Ronan O'Gara?

Kidney is armed with relevant knowledge here. He knows O'Gara has performed poorly before and recovered. He knows the opposite is true, too. He also knows, from the South Africa clash, that he can trust Sexton in a big-game environment.

Today we will know for certain which view will have prevailed in his thoughts over the hours and days since Paris. His call will be pivotal.

An added bonus to including Sexton ahead of O'Gara means that it could scupper much of England's gameplan; much of their strategy, as it has been for nigh on a decade, would have been predicated upon O'Gara's inclusion.

There is a natural temptation to align Sexton with his Leinster half-back partner Eoin Reddan, especially given the apparent speediness of his service when latterly introduced in place of Tomas O'Leary.

Kidney is unlikely to concede the point. Furthermore, he will be averse to making more changes than absolutely necessary and he will also be keen to ensure O'Leary's greater physicality offers a buffer against a marauding English pack.

Presuming O'Gara is rotated, there is an outside chance that, in one of those quirks of selection, he may lose out on the 22 altogether.

Given Wallace's inability to cover the back three, that seems highly unlikely and O'Gara's role in proceedings could yet be crucial.

"I thought 'Sexto' played very well for Leinster the other night," says Gaffney. "It could go either way and both bring a lot to the party."

The front-row poser: John Hayes or Tom Court?

Much of the puzzling dilemmas facing Kidney after Paris concerned more than the mere shuddering nature of the defeat.

Not only does the coach have to concentrate on the immediate requirement of retaining a foothold in the championship ahead of two money-spinning home games for his employers; he also remains cognisant of the fact that there is a long-term view within his remit, that of propagating a competitive 30-man World Cup squad within which there is adequate cover for every position.

A bit like O'Gara, Hayes has become an unwitting victim of his decade-long omnipotence in his specialist position. Few have challenged his authority; few have had the ability.

The latest heir, Tom Court, is a live prospect. But Hayes is due to earn his 100th cap on Saturday and Kidney will demur from such a public slight. However, Kidney's approach will not merely be a sop to sentiment.

Twickenham will suit Hayes much more than the forbidding, relentless pace of Paris and there are likely to be many more line-outs. Expect Court to get a good 30 minutes from the bench ahead of a start next time around.

The other front-row positions pick themselves and Sean Cronin is primed for a bench berth. Leo Cullen deserves to stave off Donncha O'Callaghan's claims, despite the latter's return from injury; the Munster man would prove an ideal impact replacement, with a view to starting next time out if he impresses.

Stephen Ferris' peak fitness remains some way off but there are simply no alternatives, given the seemingly permanent exile of Alan Quinlan from the national set-up.

On the bench, Shane Jennings pips Kevin McLaughlin simply because there would otherwise be no open-side cover should injury befall David Wallace, coincidentally another player desperately seeking a resurgence in form after struggling in the collisions and in open play against France.

Not every choice is freighted with significance. But those crucial calls, that will have detained the Irish brains trust deep into the night, could have profound consequences and will test the resolve of a squad so recently "shocked" to their very core.

Ireland (possible team v England) -- G Murphy; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, R Best, J Hayes, L Cullen, P O'Connell, S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, T Court, D O'Callaghan, S Jennings, E Reddan, S Horgan, R O'Gara.

Irish Independent

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