Kidney Embraces Change

Ireland

Ireland are set for kick-off agains the All Blacks on Saturday. (c) Ken Bohane.

Declan Kidney’s team selection for Saturday’s 1st Test against the All Blacks shows he may be finally changing his loyal ways. With two new caps in Simon Zebo and Declan Fitzpatrick as well as five players who may not have expected to be starting, this is an exciting Irish team at last. Heavily criticised regulars like Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy have finally been dropped. I, for one, am delighted with this Irish team.

There are interesting combinations everywhere across the field in this fresh-looking match day 22. Starting with the back-three, world-class fullback Rob Kearney is joined by newcomer Simon Zebo and, perhaps even more surprisingly, Leinster’s Fergus McFadden. If I had seen McFadden anywhere in this team, it was at 12 but his hard-working display on the right wing in the Heineken Cup final looks to have convinced Kidney. The 25-year-old will need to shackle the attacking talent of Julian Savea opposite him, but is certainly up to the task.

Much has been made of the choice to bring Zebo on tour ahead of other worthy young wings like Craig Gilroy, Dave Kearney and Tiernan O’Halloran. The Munster speedster is often accused of having a weak defensive game, and that is fair to some extent. From my point of view, Zebo is a 22-year-old with pace, evasiveness and confidence. He has scored 12 tries in 23 games in his breakthrough season. If he had done the same for a Super Rugby side, we would be hyping him beyond belief. Zebo is an exciting natural talent and will only improve with this kind of opportunity.

Simon Zebo Munster's try scorer copy

Simon Zebo is in for his first international cap. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Brian O’Driscoll and Keith Earls make up the centre partnership for Saturday, and this will be a fascinating combination. By picking that pair, and having Darren Cave on the bench, Kidney has included the three best 13s in the country this season in his match day 22. Earls has been named at 12, but it would be no surprise to see himself and O’Driscoll swap in and out, particularly in defence. I can’t recall having seen Earls playing 12 before but after the impressive season he’s had, his confidence must be high. Up against Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith, the Irish midfield will have a busy day.

The half-backs of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are fairly established at this level by now. Still, Murray’s selection at 9 will be greeted with grunts of disapproval, particularly from Leinster fans. Eoin Reddan’s crisp delivery has helped their attacking game flow this season but I still feel Kidney has made the correct call here. If the rain comes on Saturday, as expected, Murray is more suited to the physical encounter it would bring. Even if it remains dry, I believe that Murray can deliver quick ball. When he first came through at Munster, his service was notably swift. However, this season’s game plans at Munster and Ireland have slowed him down.

The back-row sees one change from the Six Nations, with Peter O’Mahony stepping in for the injured Stephen Ferris. The Ulster flanker is obviously a huge loss, but there may be positives in it too. Firstly, it means a much-needed break for Ferris’ body, but it also changes the attributes of our back-row. Although O’Mahony will wear the 6 jersey, his inclusion is likely to mean Sean O’Brien will get on the ball in attack a bit more. In defence, O’Brien continues to improve at the breakdown. Jamie Heaslip will be eager to put things right against the All Blacks, having lost the head, and the game, back in 2010.

SOB

O’Brien may see more of the ball with O’Mahony in the team. (c) Ken Bohane.

Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan in the second-row are two players coming off the back of superb seasons. They’re a completely untested combination, but Kidney has seen sense in dropping Donncha O’Callaghan to the bench. As the heavier of the pair, Tuohy will pack down on the tighthead side at scrum-time. Look out for the locks in phase play as both are aggressive ball-carriers, and are auditioning for a spot beside Paul O’Connell in next year’s Six Nations. New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are bigger boys, but the Irish pair can match them around the park.

Finally, the front-row sees Declan Fitzpatrick in for the injured Mike Ross. The Leinster prop will almost certainly be back from injury for the 2nd Test, so this is Fitzpatrick’s time to shine. It’s certainly a case of being thrown in at the deep end, up against Tony Woodcock but this is what Ireland needed. Much has been written about our ‘tighthead crisis’ and this is the first step on the path to remedying it. Rory Best will need to guide his Ulster team mate through the game. He shouldn’t have any worries about Cian Healy on the other side. The 24-year-old is getting better all the time, and appears to be relishing his scrummaging duties as he matures.

Finally, the inclusions of Ronan Loughney and Darren Cave on the bench are very welcome. Connacht man Loughney will surely win his first cap, as he covers both sides of the front-row. Cave has been in standout form for Ulster all season and deserves a run. Overall, I’m delighted with this Irish team. It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for. Even if Ireland don’t get close to the All Blacks, I’ll be happy that guys have been given the chance to stake their claim. Us Irish fans have endlessly criticised Declan Kidney’s conservatism in recent months. Now that he has made some exciting changes, we must not take a conservative view ourselves. Bring on Saturday!

Please leave a comment with your views on the team. Right calls? Wrong calls? Who should/shouldn’t be there? Have we got a chance on Saturday?

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

7 responses to “Kidney Embraces Change

  1. Looks like we have very similar views Murray! Really enjoyably piece mate. I agree, Ireland can only benefit from trying new faces and combinations. This experience will be invaluable to some of the younger guys in the long term. We could still get a hiding but we were always likely to lose, in truth. What would we learn by losing with the likes of DOC and Da’Arcy etc on the team? We are quick to criticise Kidney for his conservatism so this selection must be commended!

  2. One qualm I have there Murray is around the selection of Murray at 9. I think the line about “grunts of disapproval, particularly from Leinster fans” is particularly unfair. Any rugby fan worth his salt who watched the closing months of this season, and indeed most of the Irish performances in the last year, will see the huge difference in form, speed of pass and connectivity with Sexton that set Reddan and Murray apart. Reddan is incredibly hard done by in Irish circles, and basing your opinion on Murray’s possible form isn’t a great argument I think.

    Otherwise, I fully agree with your points, though I do think the selection of Earls at 12 (at least on the teamsheet), and MCF at 14 is a bit strange. Both will be up against it, and particularly MCF against Savea.

    In saying that, the Earls/BOD axis and how it goes will be very interesting.

    • Hey Shane, cheers for the comment! Maybe that line was unfair. You’re certainly right that Reddan has been the form scrumhalf in Ireland this season and he probably has been hard done by. His partnership with Sexton has been an important part of Leinster’s success. There’s a lot to be said for keeping a provincial understanding together at international level, as Ireland did with Stringer/ROG for so many years. Reddan’s form and that connectivity should be more than enough for him to be selected.

      Still, I do see why Kidney is sticking with Murray. In his eyes, and mine, Murray has all the tools to be one of the best scrumhalves in the game. He is already more physical than Reddan ever was, he can carry the ball effectively, is a very strong defender (which is so important to Kidney and will be crucial vs. All Blacks). Also, he has the ability to play a swift-passing game, as he showed coming through the system. His form has dipped from last season, but I also think that’s partly been down to Munster/Ireland’s style and what the coaches want from him.

      I’m usually the number one advocate for picking the player in the best form, but this selection is the exception. I think the fact that the All Blacks are so effective in attack also means Kidney has gone for Murray’s physicality and that’s the right call in my opinion.

      Yeah BOD/Earls will be fascinating! But as pointed out by Diarmuid, Earls does have some experience at 12, albeit not at this high a level! McFadden on the wing was a big surprise, I’d rather see him at 12 to be honest. Still, excited by this team and looking forward to the game!

  3. Delighted with the team selection. Few lads getting thrown in at the deep end but it’ll be great experience. Really looking forward to seeing how drico and earls get on together in the centre! Fair play to kidney for finally having a go!

  4. Keith earls played 12 alongside Darren cave u20 for Ireland and also in the Churchill cup v nz Maori..

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