Many happy returns for Kidney
Refreshed by the way a remodelled side finished off an injury-riddled autumnal campaign, Ireland have been further buoyed by the return of four heavy-hitters for their Six Nations opener in Cardiff against the reigning Grand Slam champions. But such is the attritional warfare of modern-day rugby, that both sides are still some way short of optimum health.
Even in welcoming back Rory Best, Seán O’Brien, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney compared to the team which kicked off the 46-24 win over Argentina, there is a fresh cloud hanging over Kearney, while Ireland are still deprived of Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Paul O’Connell.
Wales, who announce tomorrow, have their own injury woes in the absence of three of their four World Cup secondrows and a fourth, Ian Evans, sidelined since mid-November. Yet, with some validity, Declan Kidney compared Ireland’s absent trio to their hosts being without Rhys Priestland, Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn-Jones.
“It’s always good to have lads back in,” admitted Kidney, in singling out the returnees while noting the absentees, before adding in words that would find resonance with all of his five counterparts. “You try and stay sane by saying maybe you’ll have about a 15 per cent injury rate. We’re probably just over that. So no better or no different to the other sides, from the few bits I’ve seen in the news reels.”
Depower Welsh pack
A largely predictable selection sees Craig Gilroy picked ahead of a posse of would-be right-wingers, with Peter O’Mahony’s carrying and line-out skills chosen ahead of Chris Henry from the off in a selection that suggests Ireland will seek to initially depower a Welsh pack who may by contrast opt for two opensides. It was a double cause of celebration for the Munster flanker as he has signed a new contract with his province taking him to the end of the 2014/’15 season
They were, Kidney admitted, close calls, as was leaving Keith Earls amongst the replacements, as well as Donncha O’Callaghan. “He’s 32 but it’s like he’s 23 at the moment, he’s flying at the moment.”
At least this makes for a strong if, like the team, decidedly mixed bench featuring four players with two shy of 300 caps between them, and three others with eight, as well as Seán Cronin. Amongst them is Declan Fitzpatrick, whose selection after scarcely 100 minutes for Ulster this season and the last 10 minutes for the Wolfhounds against the Saxons is validated by what happened to Michael Bent in the previous 70 minutes in Galway. Not that Kidney was inclined to say as much.
While it was “a balancing act” to whichever backrow combination Ireland opted for, Kidney admitted that O’Mahony’s line-out abilities were a factor. A riskier call is arguably the choice of the 21-year-old Gilroy.
Even though his footwork, line breaks and finishing skills impress, he is not so renowned for his defence, and opposing George North, Gilroy will be conceding two stone, three pounds in weight and four inches in height.
“That’s the great thing about sport, there’s lots of good competition,” said Kidney when asked if this was a gamble. “I’d be more thinking not about the opposition, but how do you justify to Fergus or to Luke or to Andrew why I haven’t picked them. I would have a lot of time for all those lads, so that’s a vote of confidence to Craig and if he wants to keep it, then that’s his opposition, more so than anyone he’ll be playing against at any given time.”
The coach denied that Gilroy’s selection reflected a more attacking, or less passive approach compared to the opener a year ago – as distinct from Ireland being defensively passive.
“No, I wouldn’t think so on two accounts. I don’t think we ever stood off Wales. I think we were going nicely last year against Wales. We were something like 12 points up with ten minutes to go so we had to get that somehow and scored our own tries,” he said in reference to Ireland having scored two tries to one at that juncture before Wales’ late double whammy.
Which brings us nicely to Jim Telfer’s bizarre barb about the Welsh being “lazy”.
“Grand Slam champions?” smiled Kidney, before pausing. “World Cup semi-finalists?” he smiled again, before echoing one of the squad’s mantras this week when highlighting how last year’s meeting demonstrated what an 80-minute team Wales are. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t buy into that at all.”
And with good reason.