Kidney rings the changes for Fiji
By rights, Ireland’s encounter with the flamboyant Fijians should perhaps have been played in Ravenhill.
But then again, maybe not. An Ireland team showing a dozen changes from the side beaten 16-12 by South Africa is notable, as expected, for featuring three uncapped Ulster men and three more with just nine caps to their name; but better to pitch them into the more unusual environment of representing Ireland at Thomond Park.
Besides, as Jamie Heaslip noted, it will be a pleasant change to have the backing of a Thomond Park crowd. As expected, 20-year-old outhalf Paddy Jackson, 21-year-old centre Luke Marshall and 21-year-old winger Craig Gilroy are joined by 20-year-old Iain Henderson, capped last week off the bench, and the comparative “’ould pair” of Darren Cave (25) and Dan Tuohy (27).
The thrice-capped Chris Henry is joined on the bench by the uncapped Ulster scrumhalf Paul Marshall, in light of Eoin Reddan being ruled out with a bruised ankle. David Kilcoyne (23) also starts after being capped last week.
Declan Kidney extolled the squad’s attitude to training for the past two and a half weeks, and described Ireland’s first game at Thomond Park for four years as “hugely exciting”, adding: “That’s not a word I’d use too often but it’s really been refreshing.”
As to whether he’d have made a dozen changes if it had been the second of three successive Test matches, he said: “I’m not going to give a half-way answer, I’ll give you an honest answer; I don’t know.”
The Ireland coach said he went into Monday’s session with an open mind but knew three minutes in that he would have to give the younger tyros their chance.
“You have this feeling in the lead-up to matches and fellas would feel good about it but when you get to 5:25 and the referee’s calling you and you go into that ‘oh crap’ moment and they have to take a deep breath and go for it, that’s what I’m really looking forward to seeing. And if these lads do what they’ve been doing week in, week out in a green jersey, then brilliant for us.”
The selection is also notable for retaining Mike Ross ahead of Michael Bent, which suggests that management want more from their established tighthead than was shown last week. John Muldoon is obliged to play what appears an ill-suited openside role, while Fergus McFadden and Craig Gilroy could be auditioning for a place on the wing against Argentina.
Needless to say, Kidney wasn’t inclined to divulge his thinking on the captaincy in the longer term, merely stating: “This is Jamie’s time.”
Heaslip, who along with the side’s eldest statesman Donncha O’Callaghan, has more caps than the rest of the team put together, has been struck by the new players’ contributions.
“You’re not at home, you’re not his Mom, you’re not his Dad. You’re not holding their hand because you’re not going to be able to do that on the pitch. You just have to give him a bit of guidance where you can, give them a little direction.”
“The last couple of months we have been talking a lot about wearing that jersey for a day,” he added, “owning it for a day, you don’t have to play with any fear regarding anyone taking it off you. It is yours for a day. That is what these guys have here. There are a lot of great players who have worn it before them and there will be a lot of great players who wear it after them but for right now it is theirs.”
Mindful of the age profile of the established inside centres, all of whom are in their 30s, the Irish management were always keen to have Luke Marshall involved tomorrow even though the 21-year-old has made only eight starts for his province, with only two appearances off the bench in the Heineken Cup.
“Whenever you start playing rugby, you want to play for your country. I’m so happy that it’s come earlier than expected and I can’t wait to prove a point,” he said. As an outhalf in his school days, Marshall is something of a playmaking second five-eighth. “I like to get my hands on the ball and help the outhalf make a few decisions, take the heat off the outhalf.”
At 5ft 11ins and just over 15 stone he is no giant, but is a strong young boy who could potentially offer Ireland something slightly different.
Noting the bulk of the Fiji midfield against England last week, he added: “You look forward to meeting traffic, you want the physical confrontation. Hopefully if the opponent is bigger, I’ll be able to get around him and make a few breaks. It helps to have a wee bit of bulk. England and Wales go for the straight hit-up option, we like to go a bit wider and play the second five-eighth option like NZ, so that probably suits smaller players like myself.”
Jackson spoke of his own increased confidence in the Irish environment after first being involved almost a year ago and after a run of games for a winning Ulster unit. From playing possibly the Test arena’s most structured side to one who flourishes more than anyone when it becomes loose, Jackson echoed Heaslip’s sentiments when commenting: “We want to keep it structured against Fiji, who play off an unstructured game. Ulster and Ireland are two completely different teams who play two completely different ways so we’re sticking to our gameplan and we’ll see how it goes on Saturday.”
Ireland XV v Fiji
15 Denis Hurley (Munster)
14 Fergus McFadden (Leinster)
13 Darren Cave (Ulster)
12 Luke Marshall (Ulster)
11 Craig Gilroy (Leinster)
10 Paddy Jackson (Ulster)
9 Conor Murray (Munster)
1 David Kilcoyne (Munster)
2 Seán Cronin (Leinster)
3 Mike Ross (Leinster)
4 Donncha O’Callaghan (Mun)
5 Dan Tuohy (Ulster)
6 Iain Henderson (Ulster)
7 John Muldoon (Connacht)
8 Jamie Heaslip (capt)
Replacements:R Strauss (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), M Bent (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), P Marshall (Ulster), J Sexton (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster).