Strength in depth allows Kidney room to breath
Jim Glennon admires the Ireland coach's policy of involving as many fringe players as he possibly can
True to style, Declan Kidney's Irish squad announcement didn't exactly stoke the fires of national debate or controversy. Not for him the problems encountered by his counterpart across the Irish Sea after Martin Johnson selected his Elite Performance Squad for this year's RBS Six Nations.
The primary reason for the lack of controversy here was down to the squad's size -- 44 players, nine of them uncapped. We were told there were three priorities being addressed; the retention of the Six Nations title, the A internationals, and the 2011 World Cup.
Having worked with him in the past, I've never hidden my respect and admiration for Kidney and his modus operandi; in particular, his ploy of exploiting the camps to the maximum by exposing as many of the fringe players as possible to the top coaches.
The full extent of the squad's strength-in-depth, a luxury in comparison even to what Eddie O'Sullivan had at his disposal, is plain for all to see when the list of uncapped players is closely examined, with players of the calibre of Leicester's Johne Murphy, Ulster's Chris Henry, and Fergus McFadden of Leinster failing to make the cut. When it's also considered that players of the quality and experience of Geordan Murphy and Bob Casey aren't included, Murphy due to injury, it's a striking reminder of just how strong Irish rugby is at present. It's also great to see front-rowers Rory Best and Marcus Horan back in the set-up -- they will be needed.
As to of the sort of team we can expect to see fielded by Kidney in the tournament's opener against Italy, it will, without a doubt, be what the coach feels is the strongest 15 at his disposal. Once the tournament begins, and depending on results, we will almost certainly see at least a small degree of rotation in later rounds, as was done to such dramatic effect in Murrayfield last year.
Much of the starting team picks itself really. The main areas for competition are the left-wing berth, in Luke Fitzgerald's continued absence, and the contest between Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara for the number ten jersey. For me, Sexton should get the nod but O'Gara has looked much more comfortable in his recent Munster outings against Treviso and Northampton.
In the pack, the back-row will probably be left as is, with Sean O'Brien and Shane Jennings bringing their personal provincial head-to-head to international level to battle it out for the replacement spot.
The only other area of relative uncertainty is hooker. With Jerry Flannery and Best both currently injured, the number two jersey is very much up for grabs with Connacht's newly-capped Sean Cronin, and Leinster's as yet uncapped John Fogarty in the squad. Perhaps tellingly, though, the latter was omitted from Leinster's starting 15 at Twickenham last night.
Ireland are undoubtedly the team to beat in the Northern Hemisphere and the game against France at Stade de France on February 13 in the second round promises to be the tournament's pivotal encounter.
Finally, as the Six Nations approaches, it would be remiss of me to to let the occasion pass without reference to the passing of the great Bill McLaren, for so long the voice of the tournament, and the very personification of our sport.
I had the great pleasure, as a rugby fan lucky enough to play the game at a high level, to get to know the man behind the voice when subsequent to my playing days, as a co-commentator for RTE with the late Tom Rooney, we shared a commentary-box and even, on occasion, a microphone or studio with the great man. The geniality, good humour and deep love of the game and its people, the hallmarks of the public persona we all cherished, were just as evident, if not indeed more so, in the private Bill McLaren.
All who heard him will have their own personal favourite memory of his unique style; my own will be that he was the very essence of the adage 'if you've nothing good to say, don't say anything'. I don't ever recall him speaking ill of anyone, player or official -- he was a wonderful example of the power of a strategic silence.
On a personal level, I'll miss his welcoming smile, his wonderful brogue, and the ever-present hand from the pocket proferring a sample of his local specialty, the boiled sweets known as 'Hawick Balls'. May he rest in peace.