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.
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.
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?