All has changed for new-look Ireland
A new captain, a new hooker, three more potential debutants on the bench, seven changes in personnel and two positional from the 60-0 drubbing in Hamilton. Bar the halves and the midfield, every combination is a new one, although the Leinster frontrow is there en bloc. Necessity being the mother of invention, all has changed, changed utterly.In keeping with such a remodelled side, Declan Kidney was flanked at a team announcement for the first time by Jamie Heaslip and a comparatively shy Richardt Strauss, all the more so as the South African-born 25-year-old was such a natural focal point of attention for the visiting media.
Yet, with six front-liners ruled out the team actually falls along predictable if slightly radical lines. As expected, Simon Zebo has been converted to full-back and, typical of the 22-year-old, has not been remotely fazed by the idea. It’s hard not to be excited about this kid’s career prospects, and it is a bold selection which gives the team a left-footed option as well as a quick attacking threat, even if the transfer from wing to full-back comes with a bit of a prayer.
“No, he hasn’t played much there,” acknowledged Kidney. “He played some at under-age because he’s still a young man. He covers across the pitch quite well. Wingers, these days, have to be a fullback by nature with the amount of covering they have to do. It’s a unit that I picked between himself, Tommy and Andrew with the way that they’re going.”
With the possible exception of blindside, where Kevin McLaughlin misses out altogether, and scrumhalf, where Conor Murray’s greater physicality has been preferred from the start over Eoin Reddan, it’s also a form selection.
Mike McCarthy’s warrior spirit deservedly earns him the nod at lock, while Peter O’Mahony shifts across to blindside to accommodate Chris Henry which, along with Heaslip and Strauss, also a converted openside, should give Ireland plenty of nuisance value at the breakdown, though without Stephen Ferris and Seán O’Brien there remains a lack of obvious ball-carriers.
There is also a fairly extreme mix on the bench, with Ronan O’Gara, O’Callaghan and Reddan boasting 257 caps between them, as against the uncapped trio of David Kilcoyne, Michael Bent and Iain Henderson. You’d have been given long odds-on Kilcoyne and Bent being the back-up props merely a month ago, while Henderson has the most recent experience of beating South Africa, when the latter hosted the under-20 World Cup last summer.
Interestingly, three of the starting XV (Zebo, Murray and O’Mahony) along with Kilcoyne, are all products of the last two years from the Munster academy, which would suggest Ian Sherwin and his colleagues were doing something right before his removal.
The last time Ireland went into an autumnal programme without Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, in 2005, they were beaten 45-7 by New Zealand and 30-14 by Australia, and this is even more of a reshaped side. Yet for all their absent leaders, the starting line-up boasts 382 caps, as against their opponents’ 396. The infusion of newness has also augmented a burning desire for redemption after the last outing, and in time-honoured fashion, Kidney said he would simply ask the less experienced players to simply be themselves.
“They got picked on merit. I’d just like them to do what they do week in, week out. I know how much it means to them. I see that from the way they’ve been training. We have to pull them off the pitch. Otherwise, they’d still be training now. That’s always a good sign but it doesn’t mean anything unless you front up on Saturday. But it’s certainly been infectious.”
Picked on merit
As for Strauss, Kidney reckoned his hooker’s Afrikaans would only ensure a few bogus calls from Saturday’s opponents, and praised him for “picking up sticks and leaving home to throw himself fully into Leinster. Nobody would have made it easy for him to come through but he’s fought through everything and fought his way here. He’s picked on merit, and we’re very lucky to have him”.
Strauss himself recalled the road travelled when first arriving in Dublin three years ago. “I was only 23 years old, very young and inexperienced. I think the toughest thing was to know you’re saying goodbye to your family.”
Three years at Leinster have also sharpened his game considerably. “I’m a completely different player, just with the amount of coaching and technical support you get here is something I never got in South Africa. I think my ball skills, my throwing and scrummaging have improved, and then my decision around the tackle, when to go into the breakdown and when to stay out, all these things that you can’t really coach specifically, you know we got through a lot of tape and look over stuff and that’s the way you learn.”
Asked if he would it be especially emotional to hear both anthems, including Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika, he simply answered “no”. His parents are flying over for the game and he has come up against his cousin Adriaan, his direct counterpart on Saturday, before, at provincial level in South Africa. “We tried to leave the family bonds off the pitch and then go at one another. Afterwards, have a beer or something.” It will be the same again this week.
Ireland XV v South Africa
15 Simon Zebo (Munster)
14 Tommy Bowe (Ulster)
13 Keith Earls (Munster)
12 Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster)
11 Andrew Trimble (Ulster)
10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
9 Conor Murray (Munster)
1 Cian Healy (Leinster)
2 Richardt Strauss (Leinster)
3 Mike Ross (Leinster)
4 Mike McCarthy (Connacht)
5 Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
6 Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
7 Chris Henry (Ulster)
8 Jamie Heaslip (capt)
Replacements:S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), M Bent (Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), I Henderson (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), F McFadden (Leinster).