Monday 19 March 2018

Time for tough calls looming

Matt Giteau, who has been controversially left out of the Australia World cup squad by coach Robbie Deans
Matt Giteau, who has been controversially left out of the Australia World cup squad by coach Robbie Deans
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

With Declan Kidney's squad announcement due on Monday, we got a timely and ruthless selection message from Australia coach Robbie Deans this week.

Rocky Elsom is an iconic figure at Leinster, despite having spent just a single season here.

Such was his contribution to the province's Heineken Cup breakthrough, it is a status well earned, and most rugby followers in Ireland will have been stunned at the robust flanker's removal from the Wallaby captaincy.

Add to that the omission of gifted and vastly experienced utility back Matt Giteau from the Australian squad and you get an inkling of the difficulty facing the world's top coaches as they finalise their squads.

I don't know the background to the Giteau affair -- he is alleged to have had a bust-up with Deans -- but from the outside I would question the omission of a player of such proven quality.

However, the Elsom decision, irrespective of the timing, is the right one for the player and the squad as the back-row attempts to nail down a place in the starting XV after injury.

Contrast that with South Africa and the position in which their coach Pieter de Villiers now finds himself, having declared John Smit his captain ahead of the Springboks defence of the World Cup, even though few observers reckon Smit is worth his place in the side.

Ireland coach Declan Kidney is in many ways cut from the same cloth as Deans and, like his Australian counterpart, will not shy away from the tough call.

The central criterion to whatever squad he announces on Monday must be one of recognisable fairness, particularly for those set to be most affected when not making the cut. To retain credibility and the commitment of those on the fringe there must be an understanding of the rationale behind selection, despite the hurt and disappointment.

The cowardly manner in which the selection system operated in times past -- with selectors and coaches running for cover -- had to be experienced to be believed. Take it from one who knows.

This generation may dread the knock on the door or the call to come to the coach's room, but at least they get it.

I remember, having played in the two previous games against Canada and Tonga in the 1987 World Cup, finding out about my omission from the side to face Australia in the quarter-final from a relative back home.

In other words, the selection had been announced to the media in Ireland hours before the players in Australia were to be informed.

Suffice to say, the thoughts of many had turned to home long before we ran out at Concord Oval for that defeat.

Thankfully, these are different times with different standards and this weekend every emotion will be tested to the limit.

Some -- those centrally involved in Donnybrook on Thursday -- can do no more to press their case.

For others -- those involved today -- the real preparation begins now.

With the exception of Tommy Bowe, David Wallace and Rob Kearney, today's 22 is the strongest available to Kidney.

I suspect that Felix Jones, Mike McCarthy and Luke Fitzgerald have a little still to do before the white smoke comes up.

Jones' rise has been meteoric, and the same is true of McCarthy and Conor Murray. All three tick the vital box of current form.

With a work ethic second to none, Munster full-back Jones has earned this shot at selection. For me the primary role of any full-back is to inspire confidence in those in front of him. Here Jones scores big time.

Add to that a natural instinct to counter-attack (much like Kearney and Geordan Murphy) and suddenly a position which caused so many problems earlier in the year is brimful of possibilities.

It would be naive in the extreme to suggest that individual performances today doesn't matter, but for the first time in this Summer Series they come second to unit performance and result.

For Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Stephen Ferris and Shane Jennings, today's game is the first run-out of the season after their injury problems.

O'Driscoll's return is naturally tinged with personal apprehension, hence his midweek emphasis on "winning not being the be all and end all" but equally he knows that a win today would boost morale and make things more enjoyable in the camp.

He was, of course, much closer the mark when he added: "We need to stamp our authority and play the brand of rugby we hope to play at the World Cup."

Here we must dampen expectation lest there is an element out there that equates our "brand of rugby" with throwing caution to the wind. The key part of the skipper's quote centres on "stamping our authority".

This week and next week -- against England -- is about fronting up physically and earning the right to play the high-tempo game to which we aspire.

The French team today shows 13 changes from last weekend and includes seven (to our four) in the starting 15 having their first run-out of the season. Add to that close to a full house on our home patch and if ever the odds were stacked in our favour in this fixture, this surely is it -- despite the visitors' enviable strength in depth.

Losing would not be the worst thing in the world but it is something we could really do without.

We are primed to win, with preparations going to plan thus far. Losing the two games to date doesn't matter a jot but losing this one would set us back and add immensely to the pressure when we host England in seven days' time.

This fixture would have been earmarked by Kidney to take preparation to another level. Winning, and a good performance, are central to that.

Expect Ireland to deliver on both counts.

Irish Independent

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