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Tony Ward: Zebo leads trip into the unknown


Take one thing as read, today's Ireland line-up is not the head coach's 15 of choice. Were the tried and trusted available, there would be no Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy, Chris Henry or Peter O'Mahony in the starting pack, while Keith Earls and Simon Zebo would be in different positions.

But life is about opportunity and having the wherewithal to grab that opportunity when it comes along. Naturally, Declan Kidney will make all the right soundings ahead of today's opening November joust, but, in reality, he hasn't the foggiest as to how his chosen combination will go.

However, it is a journey into the unknown born of necessity and it excites. Here we are going to a Lansdowne Road game not knowing what to expect of ourselves, never mind the opposition. The uncertainty adds enormously to the appeal of a match that hitherto was built primarily on an attempt at redemption for what transpired in Hamilton back in June.

For Earls, Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, O'Mahony and Donnacha Ryan (all starters in Hamilton) memories of New Zealand linger large, as so they should, but suddenly this shot at redemption is given a new dimension by virtue of a team enforced on -- rather than envisaged by -- the coach.

Let me emphasise that, if I was in Kidney's shoes and my bread and butter was dependant on results, I too would be operating off the 'devil I know' script, but, at this time, it's simply needs must.

The selection of Zebo at full-back is probably of most interest. Like most, I had heard the rumour early on, but dismissed it as just that. It could go belly up, but, if it works, how exciting the prospect of the Cork flyer, whose sense of adventure I admire anyway, hitting an Irish backline at any angle he chooses in attack.

Against that is the obvious issue of defence where he could well be badly exposed. Rest assured, the focus of South African attention since Thursday will have been on the selection of the inexperienced full-back. Thus, the onus will be on a very much in-form back three to interchange freely and for Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble to sweep defend sensibly.

Once Paul O'Connell dropped out on Wednesday, the smart money was on a straight swap with Donncha O'Callaghan, but, here again, it's hats off to Kidney and Gert Smal for selecting Mike McCarthy. The industrious Connacht lock has been on fire this season -- and last. He is to the manor born for today's opposition and the physical challenge it entails.

Beyond that, the selection of the back-row was made easier by the injury to Stephen Ferris. The big Ulster blindside would have been a copper-fastened certainty thereby making it a difficult call between O'Mahony and Henry for the No 7 shirt to start. As with full-back, outside centre and lock, it will be intriguing to see how this back-row goes.

While there is a steadier, more familiar look to the Springboks, Heneke Meyer, much like Kidney, has had to operate without a dozen or so of his preferred starters. Though we are not comparing like with like in playing resources, there is still a sense of that journey into the unknown sparked by the selection of Pat Lambie at out-half.


If Zebo at full-back is the surprise and, in many ways, the key selection for Ireland, then so, too, Lambie in his favoured pivotal position for the 'Boks. it's a given that he will be targeted by Ireland down that 10 channel every bit as much as Zebo will be tested in the air and positionally in the wider areas.

It is, for obvious reasons, a momentous day in the lives of the family Strauss and, while much media attention will focus on the hooking head-to-head, the real match intrigue surrounds Lambie and Zebo and how each adopts to a much changed role in the white heat of battle at the highest level of the game.

As much as we would wish Jamie Heaslip a winning start to his tenure as captain, it is difficult to see beyond this still extraordinarily powerful Springbok pack. With sufficient possession, allied to Ruan Pienaar and Lambie pulling the strings, we take JP Pietersen, Francois Hougaard and Zane Kirchner to do the rest.

Verdict: South Africa by 12.

Schools cups facing a revamp

On Monday night in Dublin, a meeting of the Leinster Schools committee will be held with a view to changing the traditional format of the Leinster Schools Senior and Junior Cups.

The Schools committee and Leinster Branch have put forward five proposals geared towards maintaining both competitions in the high regard in which they are currently held, while at the same time adapting to much changed societal circumstances.

In broad terms the proposals are:

1 -- An open draw to take place after each round with pre-selected dates for each round, including finals.

2 -- That a discounted family ticket for two adults and two children be introduced.

3 -- That the feasibility of later kick-off times (under floodlights) be examined as a possible alternative, enabling people who might not otherwise attend, due to daily work commitments, come along.

4 -- That a possible rescheduling of the St Patrick's Day final (perhaps under floodlights) be considered, due to increased overlapping with Six Nations International weekends.

5 -- That Tallaght Stadium become a prime (out of soccer season) venue alleviating pressure on Donnybrook. The permission of South Dublin County Council allowing, the possibility of double-headers (Senior and Junior) could be considered.

While I suspect the floodlit proposal may be put on hold, there's no doubt a rolling draw (as is the case in Ulster) would add enormously to both competitions, as opposed to the early December 'all in draw' in its current format.

Either way, in an effort to maintain the high profile of these great competitions, the committee are to be commended.

seeding crucial for 'World' draw

As of today the top 12 in the IRB World rankings read:

1) New Zealand 92.91

2) Australia 86.37

3) South Africa 84.69

4) England 83.09

5) France 83.03

6) Wales 82.26

7) Ireland 79.85

8) Argentina 78.63

9) Scotland 77.97

10) Samoa 76.23

11) Italy 76.03

12) Tonga 74.79

So, if the World Cup Draw was held now (it's scheduled for London on December 3), it would show:

Band 1: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England.

Band 2: France, Wales, Ireland, Argentina.

Band 3: Scotland, Samoa, Italy, Tonga.

With one drawn from each Band, the importance of a top-eight (Band 2) finish needs little elaboration.

Irish Independent