At lunchtime tomorrow, Ireland will announce their match day 22 for the Six Nations opener with Wales on Sunday. Everyone has their own opinions on who should be in that match day squad, and plenty of different reasons why. So here’s your chance to pick the team…
Below is The Touchline’s choice of 22 for Sunday. You’ll see why we have chosen each player and why they were preferred to the other available options. After you’ve read through this selection, post your team/squad in the comments sections at the bottom of the page.
This is not the exact team that we think Declan Kidney will pick, but rather the team that we would pick if we were in charge of the Ireland team. Some players will be unanimously picked in everyone’s teams, but it will be interesting to see what players you think Kidney should take a chance on…
The Touchline’s Starting 15 for Wales Game
1. Cian Healy – As we saw in a Man of the Match performance against Australia at the World Cup, Healy is world-class at his best. While he hasn’t really hit those heights for Leinster since returning from New Zealand, his display against Montpellier two weeks ago showed he is hitting form at the right time. Also, the fact that Brett Wilkinson and Tom Court are his only opposition for the loosehead spot means he is a certainty to start. His battle with Adam Jones will be key.
2. Sean Cronin – Rory Best had a stellar World Cup and probably deserves to retain the jersey because of that. But for this particular match, Cronin would be my choice. Battling with Richardt Strauss for the Leinster No.2 jersey has brought rapid progress from Cronin. His lineout throwing has improved to an international level. However, it’s his pace and mobility that I would pick him for. The Welsh aren’t afraid to open games up, and that is where Cronin is at his best. With Welsh tackles likely to be focused on O’Brien and Ferris, the Leinster hooker could cause havoc.
3. Mike Ross – The lack of competition at tighthead means that Ross has become an irreplaceable cog in this Irish team. Declan Kidney’s loss of faith in Jamie Hagan means that Tom Court is the only other viable option in this position. Court would be a clear downgrade on Ross, so keeping him fit is essential. His importance lies at the set-piece, ensuring Ireland win their own ball and trying to disrupt on the Wales put-in as much as possible.
4. Dan Tuohy – There’s no lack of competition here, with Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan hopeful of selection, and realistically ahead of Ulster’s Tuohy. There will be plenty of calls for Ryan’s ball-carrying ability to be included, but for me, Tuohy offers more than the Munster man. His strength on the ball is complemented by good skills and he is a shrewd operator out of touch. Tuohy was one of the stand-out players in the Wolfhounds loss to the Saxons, continuing his superb form for Ulster all season.
5. Paul O’Connell – There will be no argument with this selection! O’Connell captains the side and is in the best form of his life. Even if you were to exclude his world-class leadership qualities, O’Connell is one of the best second-rows in the world right now. He has been immense for Munster all season, dragging them through games on several occasions. His ball-carrying, which was not always a strength, has improved immeasurably in the past six months. Expect another huge performance.
6. Stephen Ferris – If there is any Irish player who can match O’Connell’s level of performance this season, then it’s Stephen Ferris. He has been vital to Ulster as they have developed into a side that looks like real contenders for the Heineken Cup. Bouncing defenders for fun and smashing opponents in the tackle, Ferris has been unstoppable. The physical side of his game has been complemented by his refined offloading and decision-making. Ferris is not just a wrecking ball, he offers pace and subtlety too.
7. Sean O’Brien – While Ireland’s lack of a breakdown specialist is a weakness, there are no standout options to perform that role. If Niall Ronan hadn’t been ruled out for the season, then I would have seriously considered him here. But O’Brien’s extreme physicality has to be accommodated somewhere. At his best, the 2011 ERC European Player of the Year can carry this team. He has proven calibre at this level and will be keen to show that the Welsh cannot nullify his impact a second time.
8. Jamie Heaslip – One idea I toyed with in my selection was playing O’Brien at the back of the scrum, meaning Heaslip would be dropped. If James Coughlan had been included in yesterday’s 32-man squad then I would have contemplated starting him. In the end though, Heaslip gets the nod. While he still hasn’t matched the heights of 2009, the Leinster No.8 offers experience, intelligence and a degree of ability at the breakdown. He will be out to prove himself as one of the tournament’s best No.8s
9. Conor Murray – The Munster scrumhalf is up against Leinster’s Eoin Reddan for the 9 jersey. We’ve gone for Murray due to the more all-round game he brings. While Reddan’s passing is crisp and his game well suited to a team on the front foot (witness Leinster’s hammering of Bath at the Aviva), Murray offers more. The 22-year-old has a physical presence that Reddan cannot match, is far more threatening around the fringes and possesses a cool head. It seems to be very difficult to fluster the youngster, whereas Reddan is at times susceptible to a lack of control. Murray against Mike Phillips at scrumhalf would be a fascinating battle of the world’s best and one with the potential to challenge him.
10. Jonathan Sexton – This was the hardest call to make and I changed it several times. Ronan O’Gara’s form for Munster means it is difficult to leave him out. Sexton nudged ahead on the basis that his style perhaps suits this game a little better. Physically stronger, Sexton is better equipped to handle the likes of Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau running down his channel. While there is nothing wrong with O’Gara’s distribution, Sextons’s more all-round attacking game is more of a threat. The hope would be that Sexton has put his World Cup place-kicking nightmare behind him.
11. Andrew Trimble – If Kidney were to pick his team on form, then Trimble would be one of the first names mentioned. The 27-year-old has never been an undisputed first-choice for Ireland, but surely now his time has come. He has been excellent for Ulster all season. 6 tries in 11 games highlights his finishing ability, but there is so much more to Trimble’s games than taking scoring opportunities. His work-rate is as high as you will see for a winger. Defensively aggressive and brave, Trimble is not afraid of getting stuck in. His strength and speed make him the complete winger.
12. Fergus McFadden – Gordon D’Arcy has been the man in possession of this jersey for what seems like an eternity. He has been a great servant to Ireland, that cannot be disputed. But the past two seasons have seen his influence gradually wane and the time has come to install a replacement. Leinster teammate Fergus McFadden fits the bill nicely. He is a different type of player to D’Arcy. He gets over the gainline through hard, direct lines using his pace whereas D’Arcy relies on his excellent footwork. D’Arcy is regarded as a fine defender but the truth is that he has missed some important tackles in recent times. McFadden’s passing has improved massively under Joe Schmidt (check his skip pass here), to the extent that he has the ability to distribute from 12.
13. Eoin O’Malley – It seems likely that Kidney will go for Keith Earls against Wales. Darren Cave would have been my first-choice but he too has been ruled out through injury. Next in line for me would be Leinster man O’Malley. He is a natural 13 and his form has been superb this season. The talk of his defence being weak appears to be based on one missed tackle, a tackle which wasn’t even his to make. In fact, O’Malley is an extremely competent defender. His positioning is always clever and he has exceptional ability at the breakdown. O’Malley’s low centre of gravity allows him to get over the ball, slowing it down or winning turnovers. He is also a real attacking talent, with quick feet and a strong pass off both sides.
14. Tommy Bowe – First off, I will admit that I have not seen much of Bowe for the Ospreys this season. However, even an off-form Bowe would be included in my team. 5 tries in 13 games would suggest that the Monaghan man hasn’t forgotten his way to the tryline. The Ospreys wing is one of the world’s best wingers and one of Ireland genuinely world-class players. The big occasion often brings out the best in Bowe. As always, he will be relied upon to make positive yards for Ireland as well as finishing any chance that comes his way. Going for Trimble and Bowe on the wings means Earls missing out. Trimble’s form sees him ahead of Earls while Bowe’s quality makes him undroppable.
15. Rob Kearney – Joe Schmidt has backed Kearney as his first-choice fullback this season despite the excellence of Isa Nacewa when filling in at 15 last season. But Kearney’s recent displays have justified Schmidt’s decision. The Louth native looks quicker than ever and clearly used his the time out last season to study the role of the modern fullback to a greater extent. Kearney’s understanding of when to counter-attack, when to kick and when to take contact make his decision-making a real strength. His defensive positioning and concentration look to have improved too. Fullback is another position where Ireland have a lack of genuine competition. Denis Hurley is nowhere near Kearney’s standard. In fact, Kearney’s younger brother David would appear to be the next best option.
16. Rory Best – The only other hooker in the squad and therefore a no-brainer.
17. Tom Court – Brett Wilkinson is the only other prop in the squad, but he can only cover loosehead. Court has played on both sides of the scrum so is included for that reason.
18. Donnacha Ryan – Ryan could cover second-row as well as the back-row, making him an obvious choice for the bench. He would have good impact too with his aggression and ability to make hard yards.
19. Peter O’Mahony – This is a seriously competitive spot, with plenty of competition to cover the back-row. O’Mahony gets the nod because he would be the one who could create the biggest impact. His abrasive, in-your-face style would be ideal if Ireland were struggling to impose themselves on Wales. O’Mahony fears nothing and would do everything in his power to unsettle the Welsh players.
20. Eoin Reddan – Once again, Reddan is the only other option in this position so has to be included in case of injury to Murray. In an ideal world, Paul Marshall would have been better to spring if Ireland were chasing the game.
21. Ronan O’Gara – What a man to have on the bench. Any sign of Sexton not handling the pressure and ROG could be relied upon. While there is an argument that Sexton should be now given free reign over the outhalf position, without the added pressure of O’Gara on the bench, the Leinster No. 10 should be well able to deal with it.
22. Keith Earls – The Munster man scored 5 tries at the World Cup and clearly is a quality player. His best position is on the wing and he would benefit by both Munster and Ireland seeing this. However, for this game, his ability to fill in at centre, wing and fullback makes him an ideal replacement.
So, what do you make of that team? If you were in Declan Kidney’s position who would you pick? Would you go for any wildcards? Would you give youth a real chance and blood all five uncapped players? Or would you stay loyal to the tried and tested? O’Gara or Sexton? Cronin or Best? Murray or Reddan?
Comment below with your starting 15/22!
Photos courtesy: Ross Wynne.