Sunday 21 January 2018

Tony Ward: Pressure on Kidney to give Kiwis real test

Declan Kidney. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Kidney. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

A tour too far in a season too long? It has been undertaken for purely financial reasons and yet, for all that, it's a great opportunity for the players to write their names into rugby folklore.

Taking on the world champions in their mid-winter back yard would represent a huge test at the best of times; to be doing so without some of your key players amounts to a mission impossible.

Logic dictates that the All Blacks should be nigh on untouchable in their first game under their new coach, Steve Hansen.

And, yet, there is pressure on Declan Kidney to deliver. Scotland's humbling of the Wallabies, our U-21s' magnificent victory over Junior World Cup hosts South Africa and Leinster's Heineken Cup triumph all add to the sense of expectation.

Should Kidney's under-strength team -- minus Mike Ross, Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe -- pull a rabbit out of the hat, then all will be well ahead of the new season.

However, any capitulation would see the Irish management team very much in the firing line. We're not quite at make-or-break time, but the next three Saturdays will have a massive bearing on what happens in the future.

Kidney has, despite his injury problems, opted for change by design, and that is to be welcomed.

I particularly welcome the decision to run with Keith Earls in his favoured and most effective position alongside Brian O'Driscoll in midfield -- with the latter likely to spend the majority of the game at inside-centre, despite wearing the No 13 jersey.

The skipper is sensible enough to appreciate that, in the twilight of such a great career, a move closer to the action might be in his and in the team's best interests.

With Bowe ruled out, Fergus McFadden deservedly takes the right-wing slot, while the selection of Simon Zebo offers a more balanced left side alternative to the hugely committed but more limited Andrew Trimble.

It is a big ask of the young Corkman, but, on all evidence to date, the bigger the stage, the better he responds. Hopefully, the weather will not limit his input to the type of defensive mode at which Trimble excels.

Donnacha Ryan and Jonathan Sexton have the opportunity to make the lock and out-half positions their own, while O'Connell's absence gives Dan Tuohy a deserved shot at the big time.

Irreplaceable

The same applies for Peter O'Mahony, who deputises for Ferris, while for Declan Fitzpatrick comes the biggest demand of all in replacing the seemingly irreplaceable Ross.

It has all the traits of the good old days -- an underrated Ireland travelling on a wing and a prayer. But moral victories are long past meaningful currency.

Richie McCaw leads a New Zealand side which includes three new caps, but, crucially, backboned by on-fire Crusaders players and with Dan Carter moving ever closer to full throttle.

Even allowing for ring rust -- it is eight months since they won the World Cup at the same venue -- anything but another All Black win is difficult to envisage.

New Zealand to make it 24 wins from 25 matches against Ireland, but, hopefully, with not too much to spare.

Irish Independent

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