You don’t experiment against New Zealand
Or maybe you do. Kidney has picked a team with a new front row, new second row, pretty new back row, new centre partnership and new wings. After the moans and groans that greeted every Six Nations selection, this team is like a breath of fresh air. There’s a chink of sunlight shining through the grey torpor that is the Irish rugby team. Could this be a team that’s fun to watch and support again? Dare we dream?
It’s a selection that indicates Kidney has thrown off the shackles a bit and looked beyond his group of stalwarts, the lads he ‘knows what they can do’. The two biggest undererformers from the Six Nations, D’arcy and O’Callaghan, have been jettisoned – cue sighs of relief from Limerick to Belfast via Dublin.
Into the second row comes Dan Tuohy, who’s been knocking hard for inclusion the whole season, and indeed since the last tour to New Zealand, where he looked international material. It may be 2 years delayed, but he’s going to get a run in the team now by the looks of things. He forms a granite-hard partnership with the increasingly influential Ryan. It ticks a lot of boxes, so long as they can manage the lineout between them, where neither is predominantly a middle-jumper – although Tuohy has some experience there this year when paired with Lewis Stevenson.
The centre partnership excites. The numbers on the shirts are 12 Earls and 13 BOD but don’t expect them to necessarily play that way. They’ll probably mix and match, but we’d expect that BOD is there to deal with the defensive threat of Sunny Bull and will play in the inside channel more often. It defies logic to have Earls’ pace and running stuck in heavy traffic. Conrad Smith is a wily operator – Earls will have his hands full, but he has the football for it.
It’s a curiousity that there are 4 players in the 22 who would tell you their preferred position is outside centre – BOD, Earls, Cave and McFadden. It speaks for the versatility of this generation of backs that they can be accomodated without the squad looking lop-sided.
The wingers are a curious pair. With Bowe and Luke injured, and Trimble’s form tapering towards the end of the season (fatigue?), it’s all change. On the right we’ve Fergus McFadden, fresh from strong performances out wide in two finals in the last month, but something of a heads-down contact magnet and hardly a try-machine.
Simon Zebo will split the jury on the left. His pace and finishing are top drawer, but he is defensively suspect, both positionally and in the tackle. Many would prefer Craig Gilroy or even Dave Kearney. But at the very least, it’s a ballsy call that has attack, rather than defensive solidity in mind. You feel that if they wanted McFadden on one wing, they need to balance it up with an out and out finisher on the other. It’s a seat of the pants selection, but hey, we’ve moaned about Deccie’s conservatism for a long time, so let’s see how it plays out.
In the tight, Ross’ injury leaves the coaching team with little choice but to turn to Ulster reserve Declan Fitzpatrick. He’s in the Ross mould in that he can scrummage well, but will offer little around the park – and Amen to that. The set piece is king. His performances against Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup semi-final and Leinster in the Pro12 have catapulted him to the top of an admittedly short queue. Still, it’s John Afoa’s reserve in one team, and the man John Afoa couldn’t shift in the other – eek.
We have a bone of contention at scrum-half, where Reddan is once again the easiest man in the country to drop – he could be closing in on Mick Galwey and Mike Catt’s record by the time he hangs up his ickle boots. Conor Murray has had an indifferent season, and if Ireland are to make the most of a backline that teems with strike runners, he must deliver quick, accurate service and get Sexton moving onto the ball in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed when watching Leinster. Maybe with proper carriers in front of him, Murray will concentrate on getting the ball out – he should watch videos of last year’s Pro12 final all week!
If we’re to quibble, it’s at the lack of an overarching philosophy of selection, a grand vision. Kidney has gone from being totally resistant to change to suddenly throwing debutants in at the deep end. There are shades of the 2009 Autumn series / 2010 Six Nations when Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien went from being completely ignored to playing 80 minutes of every game. We seem to lurch from one series to the next. Dan Tuohy couldn’t even make the training squad in the Six Nations, in spite of his form being every bit as impressive then as now. Wouldn’t it be easier for him to be starting his first game with a little Six Nations experience under his belt?
But as the saying goes, we are where we are, and we can only move forward from here. Kidney has shown that he can drop his favourites, he can pick on form, and he can pick a team that excites, on paper anyway. Now the trick is transferring that to the pitch, with only the world champions in their way. We would hope that the new faces are afforded some slack
if when the Kiwis win at a canter.