The disappointment of Paris will linger ahead of this weekend and that is where the motivation will come from. Sunday afternoon saw a refreshing aggression, particularly in the first-half. That edge was notably missing against Wales and Italy. As with all of Ireland’s big performances in recent times (think Oz at RWC2011 and England 6Nations 2011), aggression is the key. The challenge now for Kidney is to ensure that his team take to the Aviva pitch on Saturday similarly motivated.
Team selection is an issue again this week. The loss of Conor Murray and Paul O’Connell is obviously a big blow. The scrumhalf was close to his physical best against France before suffering that horrendous-looking knee injury. O’Connell was again magnificent, somehow disguising a pretty bad knee injury from everyone. His level of consistency is remarkable. Reddan in for Murray is a switch that many had called for in the build-up to Paris, and now we will see if his uncomplicated delivery does actually put Johnny Sexton on the front foot.
The selection of Tomas O’Leary as cover at scrumhalf is a baffling one. Surely this was a chance for Kidney to have a look at Ulster’s Paul Marshall, a man whose form has pushed Ruan Pienaar to outhalf. Kidney’s loyalty is hugely frustrating at times and this is one of them. O’Leary has been far from his best this season and hardly deserving of an international call-up. Isaac Boss was the other natural choice, but the word is that the Leinster scrumhalf is back in New Zealand this week and so, unavailable.
Connacht’s Mike McCarthy has been given the call to cover in the second-row. Dan Tuohy of Ulster had a good chance too, but McCarthy is the more recently capped of the pair and has been more heavily involved in Irish squad training this season. The obvious change to the first 15 would see Donnacha Ryan slot into O’Connell’s vacant position. However, there is a case for McCarthy’s inclusion from the start. He is a natural number 4 jumper and calls the lineout shots for Connacht. Both Ryan and O’Callaghan jump at 2, and neither calls lineouts at Munster. In Declan Kidney’s risk-free mind, McCarthy may look like the safe choice.
Elsewhere, the back-row has once again come under scrutiny. Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris both had big, physical games, particularly in defense with some trademark choke tackles as well as a couple of big hits. O’Brien was crucial to Tommy Bowe’s second try with his intelligent screen pass to Johnny Sexton. Intelligence is probably not associated with O’Brien’s play too often but he deserves more credit in that department. Jamie Heaslip was the quietest of the back-row trio and if Kidney decides to unleash Peter O’Mahony from the off, the Leinster No.8 may be the one to miss out, with SOB moving to the base of the scrum.
The centre partnership put in a good display on Sunday, one mistake each aside. They were very solid in defense, with the one exception being Fofana’s try, when Earls’ wild hack at the ball on the ground was the wrong decision. However, the Munster man did very well for the second Bowe try, straightening the line intelligently after Ferris had eaten up a lot of space with his lateral run. Earls looked comfortable in the 13 jersey. D’Arcy had that one bad knock-on in the French 22 when his intended pass hit his own hip. He worked very hard in defence though, especially at the breakdown.
It’s hard to see changes anywhere else on the team. Andrew Trimble didn’t enjoy the best of games and there might be a case for Fergus McFadden being included. That’s unlikely though as Kidney will look to build on the impressive first-half showing from his team. The truth is that France had a lot more possession but when we did have the ball we looked to have a bit more attacking shape and confidence. That all stemmed from the early aggression, leading to some big hits and choke tackle turnovers.
The confidence built from those plays was infectious. Seeing Bowe back himself so assertively was exhilarating and exactly what you want from your wide men. Once again, Rob Kearney was the best player on the pitch. The uplifting effect of the kind of fielding game he offers is easy to see. As those who have played the game will know, a big catch in opposition territory is inspirational. Kearney’s confidence, built on the back of a brilliant season for Leinster is becoming so important to this team.
The final issue is the captaincy. Rory Best has been in great form up front, and has experience of captaining Ulster. Jamie Heaslip has captained Leinster, and was once seen as a possible Irish captain in waiting. Stephen Ferris’ form might make him a candidate. And then there’s Rob Kearney. The thought of the fullback captaining Ireland hadn’t really occurred to me until pointed out by a knowledgable friend. But the idea has grown, and his inspirational play and respect within the squad might make him the compelling choice.
Who would your choice of captain be? Who will Kidney go for in your opinion? Would you make any changes to the starting team/squad beyond the two obvious ones for Murray and O’Connell? Comment below with any and all of your opinions/rants/praise for the Irish team ahead of Saturday’s clash with Scotland…